by Andrea L. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, President, National Lung Cancer Partnership. updated by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 11/2018
Lung cancer is sometimes referred to as the “invisible” cancer. Its impact may not often be discussed; but it is often felt. This disease takes more American lives each year than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined. One in 16 women will develop lung cancer in her lifetime, and anyone can get it. Do you know the facts you need to protect yourself and your family? (1)
Lung Cancer Takes Nearly Twice as Many U.S. Women’s Lives as Breast Cancer
In a nationwide survey conducted by the National Lung Cancer Partnership, 83 percent of women did not know that lung cancer takes more lives than breast cancer.2 Lung cancer will claim about 30,000 more lives than breast cancer this year. In fact, lung cancer takes the lives of more women each year than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined.(1)
Lung cancer is sometimes thought of as a man’s disease. However, of the 215,000 cases of lung cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year, nearly 100,300 (close to 50 percent) are in women. Over 71,030 women die from lung cancer annually, accounting for 26 percent of cancer deaths among women.(1)
One of the reasons this cancer is so deadly is because by the time symptoms are noticeable, the disease has often spread. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is only 16 percent, compared to an 89 percent five-year survival rate for breast cancer. A major reason for this is that lung cancer is more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage than many other types of cancers. Symptoms often don’t become noticeable until the cancer has grown or spread beyond the point where it can be removed surgically. (1,2,3)
Smoking Is the Number One Cause of Lung Cancer; But It Is Not the Only Cause
Some women are under the false impression that if they don’t smoke, or they don’t live in a home with someone else who smokes, they are safe from lung cancer.
While it’s true the greatest risk factors for lung cancer are smoking-related, there are other causes of the disease. The second most common cause of lung cancer is radon, an odorless, colorless natural gas.(4)
Other risk factors include: lung scarring from tuberculosis and occupational or environmental exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, radiation, arsenic, asbestos and some organic chemicals. In some cases, no obvious risk factor is found.
One in Five Women with Lung Cancer Have Never Smoked, Versus One in Ten Men With Lung Cancer
Women who have never smoked are more at risk for lung cancer than men who have never smoked. Of the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people who’ve never smoked diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. each year, more than 60 percent of them are women. (3,5)
Women are also more affected by lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke. Of the approximately 3,400 people who die from lung cancer in the U.S. annually due to exposure from secondhand smoke, 2,200 (65 percent) of them are women.6 Some evidence suggests that women may be more sensitive than men to the cancer-causing effects of chemicals in cigarettes. (7-13)
There’s an age difference, too. Approximately 9 percent of women diagnosed with lung cancer are younger then 50 years old, compared to 7 percent of men with lung cancer.(14)
You Can Reduce Your Risk of Getting Lung Cancer
The most important thing anyone can do to reduce their risk of getting lung cancer is to avoid smoking. There are other risk factors that cause lung cancer in people who have never smoked:
- If you smoke, get the help you need to quit (state quit lines can be accessed at naquitline.org or by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW).
- If you smoke now or smoked in the past, or have a family history of lung cancer, consider speaking to your doctor about screening tests that may be available to you. Lung cancer is most treatable when it is detected early.
- Radon gas. The leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to radon gas according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It accounts for about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year, 10% of which occur in people who never smoked. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. If you live in an area with high levels of radon coming from the bedrock (see epa.gov/radon), the surgeon general recommends having your house tested for radon exposure. If radon levels are too high, a device can be installed to reduce them.
- Secondhand smoke. It is estimated that about 7,000 adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke.
- Cancer-causing agents at work. Work-related exposure to such cancer-causing materials like asbestos and diesel exhaust has decreased as the government and industry have taken steps to help protect workers.
- Air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies outdoor air pollution as a cancer causing agent.
- Gene mutations. Some individuals that develop lung cancer will have genetic mutations for reasons that cannot be determined and these mutations are increasingly recognized in lung cancer and serve as the basis for developing newer precision cancer medicines.
Lung Cancer Research Is Significantly Underfunded
Historically, the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense spent approximately $1,888 per lung cancer death compared to $19,419 per breast cancer death, $11,871 per prostate cancer death, and $5,263 per colorectal cancer death.(1,15,16)
The only way we are going to make a considerable impact on the survival rates is by funding research to find new ways to detect, diagnose, and treat the disease.
Non-smokers have already eliminated their greatest risk factor for lung cancer. But non-smokers can make some lifestyle changes to help reduce their risk even more avoiding secondhand smoke, and limiting exposures at work can help you avoid the leading causes of lung cancer in non-smokers.
The National Lung Cancer Partnership is the only lung cancer advocacy organization founded by doctors and researchers working together with survivors and advocates to increase lung cancer awareness and research funding.
Our mission is to decrease deaths due to lung cancer and to help patients live longer and better through research, awareness, and advocacy.
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2011. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2011.
- National Lung Cancer Partnership. Nationwide survey of lung cancer awareness. 2010. Wakelee, H.A., et al., Lung Cancer Incidence in Never Smokers. J Clin Oncol, 2007. 25(5): p. 472-8.
- National Research Council. Health Effects of Exposure to Radon: BEIR VI. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1999.
- MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2005. 54(25):625-628
- California Environmental Protection Agency. Proposed identification of environmental tobacco smoke as a toxic air contaminant-June 2005. California Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; 2005.
- International Early Lung Cancer Action Program Investigators, Women’s susceptibility to tobacco carcinogens and survival after diagnosis of lung cancer. JAMA, 2006. 296(2): p. 180-84.
- Henschke, C.I. and O.S. Miettinen, Women’s susceptibility to tobacco carcinogens. Lung Cancer, 2004. 43(1): p. 1-5.
- Nordlund, L.A., J.M. Carstensen, and G. Pershagen, Are male and female smokers at equal risk of smoking-related cancer: evidence from a Swedish prospective study. Scand J Public Health, 1999. 27(1): p. 56-62.
- Tang, D.L., et al., Associations between both genetic and environmental biomarkers and lung cancer: evidence of a greater risk of lung cancer in women smokers. Carcinogenesis, 1998. 19(11): p. 1949-53.
- Zang, E.A. and E.L. Wynder, Differences in lung cancer risk between men and women: examination of the evidence. J Natl Cancer Inst, 1996. 88(3-4): p. 183-92.
- Risch, H.A., et al., Are female smokers at higher risk for lung cancer than male smokers? A case-control analysis by histologic type. Am J Epidemiol, 1993. 138(5):p. 281-93.
- Harris, R.E., et al., Race and sex differences in lung cancer risk associated with cigarette smoking. Int J Epidemiol, 1993. 22(4): p. 592-9.
- Fu, J.B., et al., Lung cancer in women: analysis of the national Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database. Chest, 2005. 127(3): p. 768-77.
- National Cancer Institute: http://budgettool.cancer.gov/budget-spending/funding-by-cancer-type/fiscalyear-2010.aspx
- Department of Defense Lung, Breast, and Prostate Research Program. Descriptions available at