NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Women's Lung Cancer Epidemic

April 14, 2004

Lung cancer has reached epidemic proportions among women, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but is receiving short-shrift in research funding.

Lung cancer has traditionally been considered a male smoker's disease; however, it is striking women at a higher rate than can be explained by smoking patterns alone:

  • Lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer in women by nearly 20,000 more patients a year.
  • Diagnoses among women climbed 60 percent between 1990 and 2003, and the overall five-year survival rate for lung cancer is only 14 percent.
  • More women will die this year from lung cancer than breast cancer and ovarian cancer combined -- an estimated 68,500 women, compared to 88,400 men.

But for every lung-cancer death, $1,200 is spent on research, while more than $11,000 per death is devoted to breast-cancer research, based on National Cancer Institute data.

However, an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of all lung cancer patients, about 20,000 new cases every year, have never smoked. The figure may be higher for women:

  • Women who never smoked get lung cancer more often than men who never smoked.
  • Women appear to be more susceptible to genetic damage caused by smoking than men.

There are also gender differences in the effectiveness of new treatments. A clinical trial of the cancer drug Iressa involving 139 patients, reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that tumors in 25 percent of the women shrank, compared with only 8 percent of the men in the trial. Interestingly, of the patients who never smoked, 36 percent responded to the drug, while only 7.7 percent of current or former smokers did.

Source: Amy Dockser Marcus, "Lung-Cancer Rate Jumps in Women," Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2004; based on Jyoti D. Patel, Peter B. Bach and Mark G. Kris, "Lung Cancer in US Women: A Contemporary Epidemic," Clinicians Corner, Journal of the American Medical Association, April 14, 2004.

For WSJ text,,SB108188714508081609,00.html

For JAMA text (requires subscription)


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