As the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, lung cancer is a serious diagnosis. While it’s more commonly seen in men, lung cancer cases in women have recently been on the rise. Symptoms of lung cancer in women tend to be similar to those in men, but some differences exist and can depend on many factors.
Women also tend to be diagnosed earlier compared to men, which can improve their outcomes. In this article, we’ll further discuss the known risk factors of lung cancer, common signs and symptoms of lung cancer in women, cancer types, and prognosis. We’ll also discuss the potential benefits of early detection and how it can save lives.
Lung cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the lung tissue. The lungs are responsible for taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide from our system, which is an essential function for living. Cancer cells can develop in the lungs after repeated exposure to certain chemicals that are breathed in. This is a reason why smoking is associated with increased lung cancer risk.
Primary lung cancer, or cancer that starts in the lungs, most commonly begins as a small tumor or nodule in one lung. Conversely, secondary lung cancer, or cancer that has spread from another part of the body (also known as metastases), is more commonly seen as multiple tumors in both lungs.
According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of a woman developing lung cancer is 1 in 17, which is a sobering statistic. It’s estimated that over 200,000 new lung cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2023, approximately half of them being women.
While the majority of lung cancer cases used to occur in mostly older men who smoked, cases are now occurring much more often in younger women who have never smoked. It’s not completely clear why this is happening, and some researchers are calling this an epidemic that requires urgent attention and further study.
The risk factors for developing lung cancer tend to be similar for both men and women. Smoking is a major risk factor. Other risk factors include various environmental exposures such as asbestos, a family history of lung cancer, and genetic mutations.
When it comes to women and lung cancer risks, up to half of women diagnosed have never smoked. Furthermore, research shows that younger women who have never smoked are likelier to develop lung cancer than their male counterparts.
It’s unclear if this is due to secondhand smoke exposure or some other environmental exposure. Differences in hormones like estrogen could also be a risk factor, but research on this point is currently inconclusive.
There are two primary categories of lung cancer — non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) and small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC). This classification is determined based on how the cancer cells appear under a microscope. This differentiation matters because treatment and outcome can depend on cancer type.
Lung adenocarcinoma is a subtype of NSCLC and is the most common type of lung cancer in the United States. It’s usually associated with smoking, but it’s also the most common type of lung cancer diagnosed in non-smokers. A less common subtype of NSCLC is squamous cell carcinoma, which makes up to one-third of all lung cancer cases.
When someone first develops symptoms of lung cancer, it may be difficult to tell because the most common lung cancer symptoms can be vague and nonspecific. This is true for both men and women.
For example, many people first develop a cough that doesn’t seem to get better over time and may have multiple health care visits before they get an answer. Some people are diagnosed with various other illnesses first such as bronchitis or pneumonia before discovering lung cancer.
Lung cancer can cause other symptoms, including:
While many symptoms of lung cancer in women may not seem surprising, there are some symptoms that on first look may seem unrelated to the lungs. Due to this, these signs can initially be ignored or overlooked.
Some of these hidden symptoms and signs can include:
Some other surprising symptoms can happen if the cancer cells secrete different types of hormones or chemicals, a condition called paraneoplastic syndrome, which is not uncommon in lung cancer. When certain lung cancer cells grow, they can release hormones that can lead to symptoms affecting different systems of the body. This can present in different ways depending on the type of lung cancer.
Small cell carcinoma can secrete chemicals that lead to weight gain and excessive thirst while squamous cell carcinoma can lead to hypercalcemia, or elevated calcium levels. Hypercalcemia can lead to symptoms including constipation, bone pain, and confusion.
While lung cancer is generally associated with many symptoms, it commonly does not cause any symptoms in its early stages when it’s localized (meaning it hasn’t spread to other tissues such as lymph nodes or other organs). Depending on the type of lung cancer, localized may be referred to as Stage I in cases of non-small cell carcinoma, or limited in cases of small cell carcinoma.
This is why screening is so important. There are current guidelines in place for lung cancer screening. As stated by the American Lung Association, yearly screening is recommended for people 50-80 years old who have a significant history of smoking and are either still smoking or have quit within the past 15 years.
The current recommended screening test is a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan, which exposes the person to a much lower dose of radiation compared to a typical CT scan. Research has shown these screening scans significantly decrease lung cancer deaths.
In any case of cancer, it’s crucial to catch it early to have the best outcome. This is no different when it comes to detecting symptoms of lung cancer in women. When a person presents with symptoms and signs concerning for lung cancer, testing and imaging can be done in order to detect lung cancer.
Tests can include blood tests, procedures such as bronchoscopy to get tissue samples, and pathology tests to look at the lung tissue cells under a microscope. Imaging tests can include X-rays or CT scans, as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check other parts of the body for any evidence of cancer that has spread. An MRI scan is especially useful in detecting brain metastases compared to other imaging tests and poses no risk of radiation.
If you receive a lung cancer diagnosis, you’ll likely have many medical providers on your team to help make a plan for treatment. These may include an oncologist, pulmonologist, surgeon, genetic counselor, and more. Lung cancer treatment options depend on cancer type and stage, and may include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Apart from quitting smoking and living a healthy lifestyle, research has shown that when it comes to lung cancer, early detection is key. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the survival rate. Women are generally diagnosed with lung cancer earlier, and therefore have better outcomes.
While the current lung cancer screening guidelines only include high-risk people who have smoked, there are still many people who develop lung cancer and have never smoked — many of them women.
With Ezra, you not only have the power to undergo a low-dose CT to screen for lung cancer but can also check out the rest of your body with a full-body MRI. This allows you to take charge of your health on your own terms.
Start now by assessing your own risk of cancer and become more proactive about your health.