Medical researchers are faced with solving a difficult puzzle. Why is the prevalence of lung cancer in men decreasing at the same time it is increasing in women?
Lung cancer in U.S. women is a contemporary epidemic that only recently has started leveling off. Since the mid-1970s, the incidence of lung cancer in women has increase six-fold, becoming one of this country’s major health problems.
The human and financial burden of lung cancer is hard to comprehend. Currently, U.S. women have the highest lung cancer rates in the world. Last year alone, lung cancer killed enough U.S. women to equal or surpass the entire population of Muncie, Indiana, and killed more than breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined. Every year, approximately $9.6 billion is spent in the U.S. treating this disease.This scene is repeated in other top economic countries, and is expected to take its toll on emerging economic nations in the next few decades.
But why is this happening? The short answer is nobody knows for sure and some of the “causes” are still controversial, but there are some pretty impressive clues that have been uncovered.
The incidence for women we are seeing now is a result of the rise in women's smoking from decades ago, says Michael Thun, a researcher and former head of the surveillance and epidemiology at the American Cancer Society. "Women as a group started smoking later than men and are slower to quit, and smoking is known to be the biggest contributor to lung cancer," he said.
Cigarette smoking in men and women is thought to cause up to 90 percent of all lung cancers in the U.S. This is a major concern as epidemiological data suggest that women may be more susceptible than men to develop lung cancer.
Smoking explains part of the trend, but it falls short in making clear why there has been an increase of lung cancer in never smokers, like Dana Reeve, the wife of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who died of the disease in 2006, at the age of 44.