Lung Cancer in Women: The Facts, New Screening Guidelines, and How You Can Help Change the Lung Cancer Landscape

Friends Laughing at Beach

We recognize the pink ribbon for breast cancer and the red dress for women's heart health. Yet lung cancer, as the leading cancer killer among men and women, takes the lives of more than 150,000 people each year—more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined—and in 1987 surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.

In the past 35 years, lung cancer rates have increased a dramatic 116 percent in women and, while it can occur in adults at any age, upwards of 80 percent of cases are found in the over-60 population.

But there's a good chance you can't recall a ribbon or symbol for it. And at the American Lung Association, we’re hoping to change that.

In May, we launched LUNG FORCE, an inspiring national initiative to bring women together with a collective determination to lead the fight against lung cancer and for women's lung health. LUNG FORCE will help raise money for more research, encourage men and women at risk to get a CT screen, and educate the medical community about the new guidelines for early lung cancer detection. With more funding allocated for research and more at-risk Americans getting screened, we can save thousands of lives.

We're engaged in this cause because the lung cancer five-year survival rate is a dismal 16.3 percent—considerably lower than many other leading cancers, including breast (90 percent), colon (65.2 percent) and prostate (99.9 percent). Tragically, more than half of those with lung cancer die within one year of diagnosis, due to the cancer frequently being found in its most lethal later stages.

Currently only 15 percent of lung cancer is detected in more treatable stages, mainly because the disease presents few symptoms. If symptoms are present, they can include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away and gets worse over time
  • Hoarseness
  • Constant chest pain
  • Shortness of breath, or wheezing
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Coughing up blood

Until recently there has been no widely accepted screening tool to detect lung cancer at an early stage. There is now growing consensus that an annual low-dose CT screening should be recommended for individuals at high risk for lung cancer, and the American Lung Association has created an online tool to help people determine if they meet the guidelines. Visit LungCancerScreeningSavesLives.org. It's quick, with simple yes/no questions that lead to a recommendation for a low-dose CT scan or not based on your personal history and risk factors.

Yet we can't forget that lung cancer can strike in those who have no risk factors—such as smoking, radon in the indoor air, exposure to secondhand smoke or occupational hazards—and lead healthy and active lifestyles. We encourage all women to contact their primary care physician if they find themselves short of breath in an activity that used to be easy, or have any of the symptoms listed above.

At the American Lung Association we are taking lung cancer out of the shadows and into the spotlight. If you are a lung cancer patient or survivor (male or female), or lost a loved one to lung cancer, and want to join us in our fight to get lung cancer the attention and research funding necessary to save more lives, contact Allison Moroni (amoroni@lungmtpacific.org or 206-512-3294).

Contributor Allison Moroni is the Lung Health Manager for the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific. She focuses on community outreach and education about lung disease and improving access to care and support for people living with lung disease. Other articles Allison has penned for AgeWise King County include COPD Disparities Put Women in the Spotlight and Free Healthy Home Assessments for a Fresh Start to 2014.