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Cancer Risk Double for Women Smokers

But Women Less Likely to Die From Lung Cancer After Treatment Than Male Smokers
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 11, 2006 -- When it comes to smoking and lung cancerlung cancer risk, men and women are not created equal.

New research shows that women who smoke are twice as likely to develop lung cancercancer as men. However, they are half as likely to die when their disease is diagnosed early.

The international study included about 7,500 female and 9,400 male smokers or former smokers who were screened for lung cancer.

The findings confirm long-suspected gender differences in lung cancer incidence and outcomes among smokers. But it is not clear why men and women with the same smoking histories have different risks, says Cornell University's Claudia Henschke, PhD, MD, who worked on the study.

"Women with lung cancer survive more often than men, but women also have twice the risk of getting lung cancer," she tells WebMD. "And you don't want to get this disease."

Men vs. Women

In the study, lung cancer incidence and outcomes were compared for male and female smokers and former smokers screened for the disease between 1993 and 2005.

None of the study participants had symptoms indicating the presence of lung cancer, such as persistent cough or shortness of breath.

But lung cancer was detected in 156 women, or 2% of those screened, and in 113 men, or slightly more than 1% of men in the study. Of those with cancer, 89% of the women and 80% of the men had early stage disease. Ninety percent of the women and 88% of the men had surgery to remove their tumors.

After controlling for the amount and years of smoking, disease stage, and tumor type, researchers found that women with lung cancer were roughly half as likely to die of their mostly early-stage disease as men.

More Curable or Less Malignant?

The researchers say it's not clear if the survival difference is due to the women having a more curable disease, or a less malignant one.

Other studies have shown that women with later-stage disease tend to respond better to chemotherapy and survive longer than men, lung cancerlung cancer specialist Joan Schiller, MD, tells WebMD.

Schiller is president of the National Lung Cancer Partnership, which she founded to raise awareness about lung cancer in women and the importance of treatment.

Many people are surprised to learn lung cancer is not only treatable, but curable, when detected early, Schiller says. Most lung cancer patients have later-stage disease when diagnosed.

Investigators like Henschke and her colleagues are now studying the value of routine screening with computed tomographic (CT) X-ray imaging.

"One of the things that we see way too much of is patients coming to us much later than they should," Schiller tells WebMD.

Anyone with persistent pulmonary symptoms that do not go away with treatment -- especially smokers and former smokers -- should insist on having a chest X-ray even if they are told they don't need one, she says.

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