April 7, 2022

How Lung Cancer is Different for Women

How Lung Cancer is Different for Women

Lung cancer has long been considered a disease primarily affecting older men. The truth is, women are just as likely to develop lung cancer as men. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women today. The American Lung Association reports that while lung cancer rates have risen by 87% for women over the last 42 years, they have decreased by 35% in men.

A growing emphasis on gender differences in health care gives us important information about the differences between women and men in the development, causes, symptoms, and treatment of lung cancer. Because of this focus, lung cancer treatment has become more targeted and sophisticated for all patients.

Why are Lung Cancer Rates Rising in Women?

A major reason women have increased lung cancer rates is that they started smoking in greater numbers over the past 60 years. However, lung cancer researchers have not found a specific reason why non-smoking women have increased rates of lung cancer. About 20% of women with lung cancer have never smoked – higher than for men with lung cancer who’ve never smoked.

The risk factors for lung cancer are similar among women and men, including:

  • Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke cause up to 90% of lung cancers

  • Exposure to asbestos, radon gas, or toxic chemicals in the environment (diesel exhaust, or fumes from uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, or nickel) can cause genetic mutations that can lead to lung cancer

  • Air pollution

  • Family history of lung cancer, especially parents or siblings

  • Personal history of lung disease or lung cancer

  • Poor diet

Estrogen, the female sex hormone, may be another risk factor for lung cancer in women because it encourages the growth of tumor cells. Estrogen receptors have been found on lung cancer cells in women and men. Women’s lung cancer risk is affected by lifetime exposure to estrogen, which is affected by the woman’s number of pregnancies, age at first menstruation, and age when menopause began.

Lung Cancer Symptoms in Women

Lung cancer symptoms are similar in women and men. In the early stages, most patients don’t have any symptoms. As the lung cancer progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Persistent coughing; may include coughing up blood or rust-colored spit

  • Wheezing

  • Hoarseness

  • Problems swallowing

  • Bone pain

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of appetite or nausea

  • Weight loss

  • Recurrent lung infections (pneumonia or bronchitis)

  • Headaches

Men are more likely to have cancers that affect the main airways, causing coughing and breathing difficulty. Cancers in other parts of the lungs are more common in women and cause coughing, shortness of breath, overwhelming fatigue, and back, chest, or shoulder pain.

Common Types of Lung Cancer in Women

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer among both genders, accounting for about 85% of cases. The three main subtypes are:

  • Adenocarcinoma

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

  • Large cell carcinoma

Women are diagnosed with adenocarcinoma more frequently than men. Adenocarcinomas start in the cells in the outer areas of the lungs and are more likely to be found earlier before they spread.

Is Lung Cancer Treatment Different for Women?

The general lung cancer treatment path for men and women tends to be the same including at least two of the following:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer, if the tumors are small and haven’t spread beyond the lungs

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

  • Targeted therapy

In recent years genetic testing of non-small cell cancer cells has led to identifying specific treatments based on the genetic mutations that were found if any. Women tend to have these genetic changes more often than men.

Women with Stage IV lung cancer also tend to respond better to combinations of chemotherapy than men.

What is the Prognosis for Women with Lung Cancer?

In general, lung cancer does not have a high rate of survival, especially if found in a late stage. However, women tend to have a better prognosis, especially if they are non-smokers.

Researchers don’t know exactly why women have better survival rates. One theory is that women are more likely to seek early treatment and are more likely to improve their lifestyle choices after a diagnosis.

However, women encounter problems that men don’t, including:

  • Greater risk of developing the more deadly small cell lung cancer

  • Genetic mutations that can make tumor growth more aggressive

  • Less obvious early symptoms that delay diagnosis

  • Stronger DNA damage from smoking

  • Less physical capacity to repair smoking damage

The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. If you have a history of smoking, or you are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer, talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.

You might also be interested in reading: What’s the Difference Between Lung Cancer Risk, Screening & Symptoms?

If you have received a lung cancer diagnosis, find a cancer care team near your home that offers comprehensive services, including the latest treatments, biomarker testing, and clinical research trials. Cancer Care Centers of Brevard provides the information patients need to make decisions about lung cancer treatment. Our experienced oncologists are located throughout Brevard County, including Melbourne, Rockledge, Palm Bay, and Merritt Island. We’ll be with you every step of your cancer journey.


Categories: Lung Cancer