When you think of women and cancer, the first type of cancer that comes to mind is likely breast cancer. It’s with good reason. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and roughly 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year. This is tragic, and we need to do everything we can to prevent and treat the disease.
But did you know that breast cancer isn’t the deadliest cancer affecting women? It’s actually lung cancer. That’s right, according to Lynne Eldridge, MD, a physician and lung cancer expert, lung cancer kills “more women each year than breast cancer, uterine cancer, and ovarian cancer combined.”
Holy shit. I seriously had no clue about this.
Roughly 105,000 women a year are diagnosed with lung cancer. Smoking is the top cause, but 20% of lung cancer cases crop up in women who have never smoked at all, which is terrifying.
But perhaps the most surprising and troubling statistic is that while we seem to be making strides in treating lung cancer in men – with rates steadily decreasing – rates have remained stable for women. What’s more, it appears that lung cancer is actually increasing in young women who have never smoked before.
Possible causes of lung cancer in people who have never smoked include, according to Dr. Eldridge, “exposure to radon in our homes, secondhand smoke, other environmental and occupational exposures, or a genetic predisposition.”
Yeah, don’t worry: you’re not the only one freaking out. These statistics are scary AF.
As with all cancers, awareness is key, because if cancers are caught early, they are more responsive to treatments. And once you understand the dangers of something like lung cancer, you will hopefully take whatever precautions there are to prevent it.
Dr. Eldridge explains that like heart attack symptoms, lung cancer symptoms tend to be a little different for women than men. “Symptoms of fatigue, the gradual onset of shortness of breath, or chest and back pain from the spread of lung cancer to bone, may be the first sign that something is wrong,” Dr. Eldridge writes.
Of course, although cancer doesn’t always discriminate, prevention is your best bet at protecting yourself from getting sick. Dr. Eldridge’s top four tips for preventing lung cancer are: (1) If you smoke, quit as soon as possible; (2) Stay away from second-hand smoke; (3) Get your home tested for radon; (4) Exercise and eat healthfully.
A small sliver of good news news is that once detected, women actually have a slightly higher survival rate than men. But it’s a survival rate of 18% over a 5-year period, which is extremely concerning.
The bottom line is that we need to start spreading awareness about lung cancer in women, because it’s sorely lacking right now. Think about it: if more women knew that they were more than twice as likely to die of lung cancer than breast cancer, they’d do everything in their power to prevent it, raise awareness, and lend support to those who are fighting the disease.
It’s actually startling that such little media attention has been paid to lung cancer in women, especially when you think about how much attention and research money breast cancer gets.
For example, did you even know that Lung Cancer Awareness Month is in November and that white ribbons are used to commemorate it? Nope? Me neither. On the other hand, each October breast cancer awareness month is all over the freaking place. My grocery store even sells pink tortilla chips in honor of it.
As Dame Magazine pointed out, breast cancer research received $572.6 million from the National Cancer Institute in 2016 , which was the most money allotted for any cancer that year. But lung cancer research got only $247.6 million that year, about half of what breast cancer research got.
Part of this has to do with the exposure that breast cancer awareness campaigns lend to the cause. But, according to Dame Magazine, it also has to do with our prejudices toward people diagnosed with lung cancer. “The stigma attached to lung cancer—that people ‘caused’ their cancer by smoking—is thought to have stymied fund-raising for research,” the magazine writes.
My goodness, this stigma needs to end ASAP and we need to make sure all women know how to prevent and detect lung cancer. Being a smoker does not make you a bad person. Smokers deserve as much compassionate care and good treatment as anyone else – and don’t forget that quitting smoking is one of the hardest things someone can do.
So let’s do whatever it takes to raise awareness about this horrific cancer, teach women how to detect it and prevent it, and urge all medical organization to pour as much money into treatment options as possible.