OHSU

Learn About Lung Cancer

When you think of the top cancer risks for women, you might not think of lung cancer first. You might also be surprised to know that more women die of lung cancer every year than from breast, ovarian and colon cancers combined. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer – and the most deadly – for both women and men.

In the past 30 years, the number of women with lung cancer has continued to increase. One reason is that more women, especially younger women, are smoking more than ever before. Young women are now the fastest-growing group of smokers. Better detection may also be a reason for the increase. Lung cancer that was overlooked before is now being diagnosed.

And here is another surprise:

Lung cancer is not just a smoker’s disease. Of all lung cancers  in women, half are in former smokers or women who have never smoked. Each year, 20,000-30,000 people who have never smoked are diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Some frequently asked questions:

What causes lung cancer in nonsmokers?

  • Secondhand smoke – Exposure to secondhand smoke causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers every year.
  • Hormones – Estrogen may be a factor in lung cancer development. Early preclinical studies suggest that blocking the effects of estrogen may prevent lung cancer from growing.
  • Environment – Many studies show that common air pollutants, such as fuel exhaust and chemical vapors, can cause cancer.
  • Genes – Certain genes can greatly increase the risk of developing lung cancer. This may explain why some people who smoke three packs a day never get lung cancer, while others who smoke just five cigarettes a day develop it. It also helps explain why some people who have never smoked still develop lung cancer.

How can I protect myself?

  • If you don’t smoke, do not start smoking. 
  • If you do smoke, quit.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke, especially in enclosed places such as cars and restaurants.
  • Avoid long-term, repeated exposure to smog and toxic fumes.
  • If you wheeze, feel short of breath, cough up blood or have chest pain, see your doctor.