Ending Lung Cancer in Women – Turning the Country Turquoise

What We Should Know During National Women’s Health Week

By Elizabeth A David, MD

General Thoracic Surgeon

UC Davis Section of General Thoracic Surgery

Each October, the US turns pink to raise awareness for breast cancer.  Football fields are painted pink, women are reminded to do breast self-exams, and have their annual screening mammograms.   Approximately, 40,000 women will die of breast cancer in 2014 and 232,670 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed (1,2).    Breast cancer advocates are to be congratulated on their successes with raising awareness and lung cancer advocates, physicians, and patients should take note of their strategies.

Lung cancer remains the number one cause of cancer-related deaths in the US.  It is estimated in 2014, that 72,330 women will die of lung cancer and 108,210 women will be diagnosed with lung cancer (1,2).  As many of us know, a large number of lung cancer cases are related to tobacco use and for this reason carries a stigma in society which can interfere with patients seeking treatment.  What many people don’t know is that lung cancer in women who have never smoked is on the rise.  Dana Reeve, widow of Christopher Reeve, was one example.  Mrs. Reeve was diagnosed at age 44 and died within a year of her diagnosis; she had never smoked.  Although the stigma of lung cancer discouraged her, Mrs. Reeve became an advocate for other lung cancer patients and a strong supporter of the American Cancer Society. 

Unfortunately for all patients with lung cancer, symptoms are rare for early-stage disease when a cure is possible.  Generally by the time patients have symptoms, their disease is advanced and more difficult to treat and or cure.   Lung cancer screening has been shown to provide a 20% reduction in lung cancer specific death rates when high-risk patients were screened with annual low-dose CT scans of the chest (3).    High-risk individuals have been defined as those 55-74 years old, with a smoking history of 30 years or more and former smokers who had quit within the last 15 years.   These statistics do not help our female patients who have never smoked though.   Research is continuing to look at blood tests and other tests that can be used as screening exams for asymptomatic patients. 

What can you do to help yourself or someone you love?  If you are an individual who is high-risk for lung cancer (i.e. you are currently smoking and have a 30 pack-year history or you quit within the last 15 years), ask your doctor about lung cancer screening with a low dose CT scan.  For information on our UC Davis Comprehensive Lung Cancer Screening Program please call 916 734-0655 to schedule a low dose CT for lung cancer screening.  Our lung cancer screening program is a Lung Cancer Alliance Screening Center of Excellence.  If you have a first degree-relative with lung cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk and whether or not screening is appropriate.  Please do not ignore symptoms of cough, chest pain or unexplained weight loss – talk to your doctor. 

If you would like more information about women’s lung health, go to www.lungforce.org.  We are proud to partner witht the American Lung Association in California, especially during this National Women’s Health Week.  The American Lung Association is launching a national campaign to raise awareness for women’s lung health, decrease the stigma of lung cancer and COPD and to promote research.  Join the effort by wearing Turquoise, the signature color for the Lung Force lung cancer and COPD campaign, and telling people why you are doing so.  Remember, when your doctor mentions your annual mammogram to ask about your risk of lung cancer and whether or not screening is appropriate. 

References:

  1. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@research/documents/document/acspc-041775.pdf
  2. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@research/documents/document/acspc-041776.pdf
  3. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1102873