Women’s Fastest Growing Cancer Threat

Resources for smokers who want to quit

If you'd like to kick the smoking habit, chances are you'll benefit from some good advice about quitting. In addition to talking to your healthcare provider, who can tell you about prescription medications that are available to help smokers quit and about local stop-smoking groups, helpful information is available from these organizations:

  • The American Cancer Society - They offer information about lung cancer and its treatment as well as an excellent guide to smoking cessation. Look them up on the Internet at http://www.cancer.org or call 1-800-ACS-2345.
  • The American Lung Association - They offer a guide designed to help smokers quit, which also is available in an audio version. Their program also offers support groups. Find out more by checking out the ALA web site at http://www.lungusa.org or call 1-800-586-4872.

Cigarette smoke damages more than lungs

Many people don't realize that cigarette smoke contributes to many other diseases besides lung cancer. Smoking decreases a person‘s life expectancy by 10 to 12 years and is linked to:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Heart attack (smokers have twice the risk of heart attack than nonsmokers)
  • Peripheral vascular disease (a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to the legs and arms)
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Cancer of the mouth
  • Cancer of the larynx (voice box)
  • Cancer of the bladder
  • Cancer of the kidneys
  • Cancer of the pancreas
  • Cancer of the cervix
  • Cancer of the stomach
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Cataracts
  • Pneumonia
  • Periodontitis

While the rate of new lung cancer cases has decreased for men since about 1980, it has increased for women (by 106%!). The number of deaths among women due to lung cancer also continues to rise. Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death among women, having surpassed breast cancer back in 1987.

Smoking, the Biggest Fiend

Smoking causes more than 80 percent of lung cancer cases in women, according to the American Cancer Society. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Some of the chemicals smokers inhale include ammonia (used to clean toilets), cyanide (used to kill rats), formaldehyde (a disinfectant used to preserve tissue and organ samples) and acetylene (the fuel used in torches). Cigarette smoke also contains the poisonous gases nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

Given that information, it isn't hard to imagine that inhaling cigarette smoke would damage the lungs, which bring oxygen into the body and take out carbon dioxide (a waste product of the body's cells). Irritants in cigarette smoke damage the microscopic hairs (called cilia) that remove unwanted substances from the lungs. They also upset the normal balance of enzymes in the lungs, making smokers more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

Although almost everyone who develops lung cancer is either a current or former smoker, only about 10 percent of smokers develop lung cancer. Why such a small percentage?

Experts have several theories.

  • An individual smoker's risk of developing lung cancer may be affected by genetic factors.
  • Smokers may die of other causes also related to smoking, most notably heart disease, before lung cancer has a chance to develop.
  • Differences in smoking behavior may affect risk. (For example, smoking while drinking alcoholic beverages is thought to further increase cancer risk.)
  • There may be no way to predict which smokers will develop lung cancer. It may be simply a matter of luck.

Two Classes of Lung Cancer

Lung cancers can be divided into two types: small cell and non-small cell. Cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways and are treated differently. Small-cell lung cancers are usually found in current or former smokers. Non-small-cell lung cancers most commonly occur in prior smokers, people who have been exposed to passive smoke or people who have been exposed to radon.

Standard treatments for lung cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy - using drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy - using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
  • Surgery - removal of cancerous tissue

Which option is used for a particular lung cancer patient depends on several variables, including the cancer's type and stage (whether it has spread to other parts of the body), the tumor size and the patient's symptoms and general health.

Most commonly, small-cell lung cancer is treated with chemotherapy, which can kill cancer cells outside the lungs, including cancer cells that have spread to the brain. Radiation may be used to reduce uncomfortable symptoms caused by tumors in the lungs or elsewhere in the body, such as the brain, bones or spine. Patients with non-small-cell lung cancer usually are treated with surgery or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy may be used in some of these patients.

According to the American Lung Association, the five-year survival rate for people with lung cancer is about 16 percent. Many factors, such as stage at diagnosis, age and prior health, affect this rate.

For women who smoke, the message is clear: your cigarettes or your health.

Learn More

Visit our lung cancer page to learn more about this disease, including symptoms and additional risks factors.

Visit our lung cancer screening page to learn more about a painless lung cancer screening exam that helps find lung cancer in its earlier stages while it is more treatable.

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