Each year, lung cancer claims the lives of more women than breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined. Equally startling is that 20% of women who develop lung cancer never smoked (compared with 10% of men). Why women must take care…

  • One in 16 women in the US will develop lung cancer in her lifetime.
  • Some studies show that current and former women smokers are at greater risk for lung cancer than men who have smoked equal amounts.
  • Lung cancer typically appears at a younger age in women, with 9% of female patients diagnosed before age 50.
  • Lung cancer deaths are declining in men but not in women.

There are two main types of this disease. Non–small cell lung cancer accounts for about 80% of cases… small cell lung cancer is rarer but more aggressive.

Good news: There are a number of strategies that help prevent lung cancer… steps that increase the odds of detecting the disease early, when treatment is most successful… and cutting-edge therapies that bring new hope for lung cancer patients.


The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not smoke.

Reality: Cigarettes are linked to 87% of all lung cancer deaths. Yet whether or not you ever smoked, you can do more to stay safe…

Avoid smokers. Secondhand smoke is almost as dangerous as smoking yourself. Do not allow anyone to smoke in your home or car. When in another person’s house or vehicle, go to a different room or open a window if someone lights up. Avoid public places where smoking is permitted.

Reduce radon exposure. This invisible, odorless radioactive gas, produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil and water, increases lung cancer risk. Test your home’s air yourself (kits cost $12 through the American Lung Association, 800-586-4872). If levels are high, install an air venting system (about $1,200 to $1,500). If your home has a private well, test your water, too. If radon levels in your water are high, consider a water-filtration system ($1,500 to $5,000, depending on levels). Retest your home every two years.

Ask your doctor about diet. In one study, women whose diets included the most boron (a trace element) were less likely to get lung cancer than those whose diets had the least.

Sources: Almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts… apples, pears, raisins… beans, broccoli, salad greens… coffee.

In another study that involved only men, those who regularly drank red wine had a reduced risk for lung cancer. No such studies have yet been done on women. If you choose to drink, have no more than one glass per day — drinking more may increase risk for various health problems.

If you are a smoker…

Quit. Your lung cancer risk will never drop to zero, but it will decrease as your lungs begin to recover. Cutting down is not good enough — the number of cigarettes smoked daily is less influential than the number of years you smoked.

Helpful: Visit www.smokefree.gov for information and support… ask your doctor about prescription and over-the-counter drugs that reduce cigarette cravings.

Avoid beta-carotene supplements. Studies showed that beta-carotene supplements, in dosages averaging 20 milligrams (mg) to 30 mg per day, increased lung cancer risk in smokers. Multivitamins typically contain less than 1 mg of beta-carotene, so the risk with these probably is minimal. However, multivitamins designed to promote good vision often have extra beta-carotene — so they are not your best choice.

If you are a former smoker…

Acknowledge your risk. Up to half of all lung cancers in the US occur in former smokers. So while your lung health did start to improve the day you quit smoking, a significant cancer risk remains for 20 years or more.


The five-year survival rate is 56% for patients whose non–small cell lung cancer was diagnosed before it spread to other parts of the body — but 2% for those diagnosed at the most advanced stage. For early detection…

Review your family history. New research suggests that people who have a strong family history of lung cancer (three or more blood relatives) plus certain genetic variations have a fivefold increased risk for lung cancer — even if they do not smoke.

Best: If several close relatives have or had lung cancer, your doctor should monitor you closely.

Watch for warning signs. If you smoke, you probably have a long-standing cough due to chronic airway irritation — but see your doctor if coughing worsens, brings up more phlegm or produces blood. If you do not smoke, tell your doctor about any persistent cough.

Other signs: A change in your voice… recurrent sore throats, bronchitis or pneumonia… shortness of breath, wheezing… swelling in the neck or face… difficulty swallowing.

Testing: When a patient has such symptoms, diagnostic testing is warranted. This typically includes microscopic analysis of cells in sputum, bronchoscopy (fiber-optic airway exam) and/or chest X-ray. If findings are suspicious, a patient usually is given a low-dose spiral computed tomography (CT) scan, which creates a detailed three-dimensional image from a series of X-rays. A tissue biopsy also may be done.


Emerging therapies are improving the odds for lung cancer patients. Advances have occurred in the areas of…

Targeted drug therapies. Unlike chemotherapy, which affects the whole body, targeted therapies help stop cancer cell growth while sparing healthy tissues.

Example: The medication bevacizumab (Avastin) blocks formation of the blood vessels that feed non–small cell cancer tumors. Though not a cure, such treatment helps prolong lives.

Chemotherapy. Improved drugs help patients live longer and more comfortably, with less nausea, hair loss and other side effects.

Radiation. Newest techniques deliver higher radiation doses to tumors while minimizing damage to surrounding tissues.

Surgery. Non–small cell cancer patients generally have better survival rates when tumors and surrounding lung tissue are removed.

New: Video-assisted thoracic surgery techniques make this extensive operation less invasive, reducing pain and speeding recovery.

More information: National Lung Cancer Partnership, 608-233-7905, www.nationallungcancerpartnership.org. Click on “clinical trials information” to learn about ongoing research on the latest therapies.