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The Most Dangerous Cancer for Women Isn’t Breast Cancer

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The Most Dangerous Cancer for Women Isn’t Breast Cancer

Nov 20, 2014

The fight against breast cancer understandably has received much attention, but many women would be surprised to discover that lung cancer is a bigger threat to them. Dr. Kirtly Jones spells out the terrifying statistics and offers advice for avoiding the risks.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: The number one cause of cancer deaths in women? Most women would say breast cancer, but its lung cancer, and although the rate of lung cancer in men is falling, lung cancer deaths in women is rising. This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health Care and November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer in women, today on The Scope.

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Dr. Jones: The white ribbon. We see pink ribbons everywhere for breast cancer, teal ribbons for ovarian cancer, but where are the white ribbons for lung cancer? The CDC reports that more women die of lung cancer than breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers combined. Twenty-seven percent of all cancer deaths in the US are caused by lung cancer. The five year survival rate for those diagnosed with lung cancer is 16%, which makes it a particularly deadly cancer. Now, the lung cancer rate has fallen 21% among men, but for reasons that remain unclear, the rates have risen 116% among women. Of course, we all know that smoking is the major risk factor. Since 1960, the rate of smoking in men has gone down, but for women, not so much.

Lung cancer develops differently in women than men. Women who have never smoked have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than men who've never smoked. Go figure. Worldwide, 53% of women with lung cancer were never smokers. They could have been exposed to more indoor air pollution related to cooking and heating, and that may be the risk factor for women in Asia and in China and somewhat in the United States. Women tend to develop lung cancer at a younger age than men, too. The good news is women are more likely than men to be diagnosed in early stages of lung cancer, because women probably get more health care, and women tend to live longer than men after treatment for lung cancer. So, that's the good news.

Well, I'm thrilled to live in Utah where smoking is so uncommon, and where it's against the law to smoke in enclosed public places. However, a notable trend in the increase in lung cancer among healthy non-smokers is known primarily in women. If lung cancers in non-smokers were its own category, it would rank among the top 10 of fatal cancers in the US. Lung cancer can result from factors other than smoking. Genetic mutations, as well as exposure to radon gas, secondhand smoke, air pollution and asbestos, among some other things. In Utah, we have particular geographic risks related to radon and air pollution.

So, what to do for this largely preventable, common cancer? If you're a smoker, you should stop smoking. Ten years after quitting, your risk of lung cancer is half of what it would have been if you didn't quit. If you're a heavy smoker over 50, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of low dose CT scans for screening. If you aren't a smoker, don't start. If you're an adolescent or the parents of one, starting smoking is especially bad, as you're more likely to be addicted to nicotine, and have your developing brain wired for risky behavior, like alcohol.

Lowering your risk of secondhand smoke. If someone in your family smokes, no smoking in the house or in the car. Check your home for radon. Now, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium and soil and rocks. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled, and according to the EPA, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country, and it's the leading cause among non-smokers. Outdoors, there's so little radon that it's not likely to be dangerous, but indoors, radon can be more concentrated. When it's breathed in, it enters the lungs and exposes them to radiation. Homes in some parts of the US, like Utah, which are built on soil with natural uranium deposits can have high indoor radon levels, especially in basements. My basement is ventilated and has a fan in it specifically for that reason, and I live here in Salt Lake City.

If you are concerned about radon exposure, you can use a radon detection kit. State and local offices of the EPA can give you the names of reliable companies who can test your home. So get it checked and get it fixed. Limit your time on the freeway and be an advocate for clean air. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants in your diet is associated with lower risk of lung cancer. Vitamin pills won't do the trick. So, ladies and gentlemen, put on your white ribbons this month. Lung cancer is largely a preventable disease. Think about the air you breathe and what's in it. Protect yourself and the people around you. This is Dr. Kirtly Jones and thank you for joining us on The Scope.

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