The nonsmoking, athletic woman had tumors all over her lungs. Both her hip bones and liver were damaged by cancer as well. With no symptoms -- and as yet -- no reliable screening method for early detection the fact that Tina Young found out about her cancer (even if by accident) probably added months to a very dark prognosis.
Fourteen months later she still is holding her own against the disease. Her story, others like hers and the advent of extraordinary report released this past Monday by Brigham and Women's Hospital -- "Out of the Shadows: Women and Lung Cancer" -- will hopefully raise the blinds on a public health issue that has been advancing steadily for the past twenty-three years. This points to a collective and alarming "see no evil" stance that results when any behavior-related cancers are being discussed.
The year my mother died of lung cancer -- 1987 -- is the same year lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women. Not the progress any man or woman who ever championed equality ever had in mind.
Here's the facts about lung cancer in women today from "Out of the Shadows":
- More women (and men) die from lung cancer every year than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancer -- combined.
- Some 200 women die every day from lung cancer.
- The incidence of lung cancer in women has increased six-fold over the last 30 years. The death rate for women began increasing while that of men declined. In fact the death rate for women increased from the mid-1970's through 2003. The death rate appears to be leveling off.
- Lung cancer kills more women every year than any malignant tumor. By comparison, more women are diagnosed annually with breast cancer, but through effective screening methods (ie earlier diagnosis) and treatment options more women live longer. Cancer caught in its "infancy" can be successfully treated.
- The last and most alarming: 60 percent of new lung cancer cases consist of people who have never smoked (or are former smokers). The majority of those who never smoked are women. One in five women with lung cancer are not -- never have been smokers. Adenocarcinoma, once rare, is now the most common type of lung cancer in women of all ages, particularly young people who haven't smoked.
There are sex-related factors that come into play. How they do so is not clear as yet to researchers. This much is known: women -- even when diagnosed at a similar stage than men -- survive longer. Women are more likely though, to be diagnosed at an earlier age. Women too, seem to be more susceptible to second hand smoke. This difference, and a variation that has been identified in a tumor-suppressing gene, may prove to be a promising avenue for researching new therapies.
One of the assets of "Out of the Shadows" is its clear presentation on policy implications, from understanding sex-related differences to pushing emerging technologies for early detection and developing public health interventions with African American and Native Hawaiian smokers. Both groups carry a significantly higher risk of developing lung cancer than whites.
The best thing we can do first is understand the extent of the problem, gather our compassion, and start advocating. The reason this topic doesn't reach the headlines is that too many of those affected die.
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Lung Cancer Alliance: the only national non-profit organization dedicated solely to providing patient support and advocacy for people living with or at risk for the disease. Our mission is clear: leading the movement to reverse decades of stigma and neglect by empowering patients, elevating awareness and changing health policy.:
LUNGevity Foundation founded by seven Chicago-area lung cancer survivors in November 2000 to increase funding for lung cancer research.
Grass roots organizations: