Women and Lung Cancer: Learn the Warning Signs

This week is National Women's Lung Health Week, and according to The American Lung Association, 98 percent of American women do not even have lung cancer on their health radar. In fact, their studies show that 77 percent of women ignore the early warning signs of the disease, and by the time they receive a diagnosis, they have late stage lung cancer.

Why? “When people think of female cancers, they tend to think of breast and ovaries,” explains Dr. Shadia Jalal, a thoracic oncologist at Indiana University Health. “But the truth is that lung cancer is a woman’s disease as well. More women die from lung cancer than die from breast cancer and ovarian cancer combined. Because men and women both have lungs, no one really thinks of it as a women’s disease, but it is really a women’s health issue that people should be very aware of.”

While the stereotype is that only smokers or recent former smokers can get lung cancer, that is not the case. According to Dr. Jalal, 20 percent of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked, and the majority of non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer are women, facts that Dr. Jalal has personally witnessed in her own practice.

With lung cancer, understanding the risks and signs are important. For female smokers, the median age to receive a lung cancer diagnosis is late 60s and early 70s. But for non-smokers, women are diagnosed younger, in their 40s and 50s. If patients are experiencing a persistent symptom that is treated for a week or two and does not go away, it could signal a bigger problem.

“The majority of the time, if someone has respiratory complaints, such as a chronic cough, hemoptysis – which is coughing up blood, constant chest pain, uncontrollable wheezing and shortness of breath, these are usually concerning symptoms,” cautions Dr. Jalal.

For those who are chronic smokers or former chronic smokers, there are additional signs that need to be monitored closely. While baseline chronic symptoms may exist due to smoking, if the symptoms get worse, then a doctor should conduct an examination. Concerning symptoms include a cough that becomes more frequent, the production of more phlegm, sudden and unexplained weight loss, or constant exhaustion.

“I think the challenge is that smokers or ex smokers might have chronic smoker’s cough or have COPD or emphysema so that if shortness of breath gets a little worse once in a while, they think it’s weather related, or they blame it on other things,” says Dr. Jalal. “That’s why, at times, there is a delay in diagnosis. They present to their primary care physician and are treated for pneumonia once, twice or three times, but when the antibiotics don’t work, that’s when they get a scan or chest x-ray that shows the diagnosis of lung cancer.”

During the past few years, lung cancer screening has become available for patients who are at a high risk of developing cancer, and if caught early, there is a good chance of survival.

“People need to think of screening if they have the risk factors, such as a heavy smoking history that is either active or previous,” Dr. Jalal advises. “They should ask their physician if they are the right candidate for a lung cancer screening because there is now overwhelming evidence that screening people for lung cancer detects lung cancer earlier and improves mortality.”

Dr. Jalal also encourages people to take an active role in their health. “Being proactive and aware of things early on is the best way to go,” she advises. “If the cancer is diagnosed at stage one, you have a very good chance of survival. At stage two, the chance is reasonable. About one-third of people survive when diagnosed at stage three, and stage four is not curable,” she says.

The bottom line: “My best advice is that you should quit smoking and make sure you are screened for lung cancer if you are at risk,” advises Dr. Jalal.

-- By Gia Miller


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