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Lung cancer remains leading cause of cancer deaths among women

Paoli Hospital March 9, 2015 Wellness Articles

A new report published in the journal Cancer: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, finds that lung cancer is the leading killer of women from cancer in developed countries. Although many think breast cancer is the number one cancer killer of women, this is not the case. Dr. Alicia McKelvey says it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Lung cancer is responsible for 80 percent of cancer deaths among women, and it has been the leading cause of cancer deaths in both women and men in America for many years,” says Dr. McKelvey, thoracic surgeon at Main Line Health Thoracic Surgery at Paoli Hospital.

Based on statistics from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, lung cancer claims the lives of nearly 30,000 more women each year than breast cancer. And while smoking remains the leading cause of lung cancer, a number of female patients diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers.

So, without a history of smoking, what’s to blame for the high number of lung cancer deaths among women?

“Some of the other major contributors to lung cancer risk are the presence of radon or environmental pollutants like diesel exhaust that an individual may have been exposed to either at home or at work,” says Dr. McKelvey.

Understanding additional lung cancer risks like these is important, says Dr. McKelvey, as women who are diagnosed with lung cancer today have only a 46 percent chance of being alive in one year. Women who have been exposed to environmental or occupational pollutants should talk to their physician about their lung cancer risk.

Screening for lung cancer

Until recently, no screening methods were available to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages. That changed in 2011, when the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) introduced low-dose CT scans to individuals with specific risk factors. These scans offer the chance to reduce lung cancer deaths by 20 percent in high-risk patients.

“Many lung cancer patients began smoking or were exposed to other factors years before they were diagnosed. For patients like these, who are at a higher risk for cancer, we’re able to be proactive and detect cancer before it becomes symptomatic, when the cancer tends to be more advanced and is less likely to be cured,” explains Dr. McKelvey.

Currently, low-dose CT scans are available to three groups:

  • Smokers between ages 55–74 who have a 30-pack year history (one pack per day for 30 years, two packs per day for 15 years, etc.) or more, who are actively smoking or who have quit within the past 15 years.
  • Those with a 20 or more pack year history, who are actively smoking or who have quit in the last 15 years, plus an additional risk factor, such as a family history of lung cancer, chronic lung disease, exposure to radon or other toxins, or those with careers in mining, firefighting, or the military. People note that certain insurances may have age criteria. Reach out to your primary care physician to be screened or call 484.565.LUNG (484.565.5864).
  • Those aged 50–80, with a 30 or more pack year history of tobacco use, who are actively smoking or have quit in the last 15 years.

Women, and men, who fall into any of these categories should discuss lung cancer screening with their physician.

Main Line Health is one of many health systems to offer lung cancer screenings. Visit our website to learn more about screenings and determine whether or not you are a candidate, or call 484.565.LUNG (484.565.5864).