Lung Cancer Is a Women’s Health Crisis. It’s Time the U.S. Starts Acting Like It.

Lung cancer diagnoses have risen 84 percent among women over the past 42 years, while dropping 36 percent among men over the same period. (SSPL / Getty Images)

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The disease is the number one cancer killer of women in the U.S., killing more women than breast, ovarian and cervical cancer combined. And it is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women: Nearly 120,000 women were diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. this year.

Yet, in 2019, the NIH lung cancer budget equated to $1 per woman and $7 per man. This accounted for just 15 percent of the budget allotted to women-focused research, when women account for 46 percent of lung cancer deaths. 

When it comes to health research, women—regardless of race—are a minority community. 

Women’s Health Access Matters (WHAM), a nonprofit which works to increase awareness and accelerate funding for women’s health research, commissioned the RAND Corporation to look at the economic impact of increasing investment in lung cancer research in women.

They found that doubling the amount devoted to women’s lung cancer research—an investment of $40 million—not only generates a 1,200 percent return on investment and pays for itself 12 times over, but also improves quality of life, reduces healthcare costs and can save 22,700 years across 30 years of extended life. 

The Sexist History of Medical Research

Women have historically been disenfranchised from medical research, specifically clinical trials.

report by the U.S. Public Health Task Force on Women’s Health in 1985 concluded that knowledge related to women’s health was lacking, compromising the quality of health information available and the quality of healthcare women receive. 

In 1993, the Food & Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials. Prior to this, the focus of most health research was on the “norm” being white men. 

2013 study serves as a reminder that almost 20 years ago, research showed there were differences in risk factors, histology, pathophysiology, treatment outcomes and prognosis in women with lung cancer as compared to men. 

In 2016, the federal Cancer Moonshot Program was launched by then-Vice President Joe Biden with the aim of cutting the cancer death rate. The initiative was revitalized under the current administration providing funding for cancer research with the goal of transforming cancer diagnoses from death sentences to chronic medical conditions. 

Not a ‘Man’s Disease’

The stereotype of lung cancer is that it’s a man’s disease. But in the last 40 years, the incidence of lung cancer diagnosis in women has risen 84 percent, while dropping 36 percent in men. 

Women are diagnosed with lung cancer at a younger age than men. Non-smokers who develop lung cancer are nearly twice as likely to be women than men. Of the women diagnosed with lung cancer, approximately 20 percent are lifetime never-smokers.

While smoking remains the greatest risk factor, environmental exposures are also significant. Globally, women and children are disproportionately affected by environmental exposure

There is hope: Women have higher survival rates regardless of stage, histology, treatment modality or smoking status as compared to men. When age-matched, men have a higher incidence of co-morbidities as compared to women.

But there must be an even playing field. Research needs to specifically address outcomes differences between men and women to concentrate on the role of specific genetic mutations, hormonal variations, behavioral influences and environmental influences.

In the last several years, several high-profile women have discussed their struggle with lung cancer. 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Dana Reeve and singer Donna Summer, were all diagnosed with lung cancer and succumbed to the disease. More recently, comedian Kathy Griffin was diagnosed and treated for lung cancer; Griffin was a never-smoker, diagnosed at early-stage and underwent surgical resection for cure. 

R&B legend Mary J. Blige has also joined the fight. Although not personally afflicted with cancer, she has lost many female family members to lung, breast and cervical cancer. She has joined with the American Cancer Society as an advocate and ambassador for cancer diagnosis and treatment, with emphasis on healthcare disparities, supporting the Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative. 

The public attention to lung cancer in these high-profile women can bring awareness. And the breast cancer community has done an amazing job with awareness with the Wear it Pink and Save the Ta-Tas campaigns. Forces combined for the Pink and Pearls campaign, as pearl is the color of the lung cancer awareness ribbon. The goal is to draw attention to the most common cancer killer (lung cancer) and most diagnosed cancer (breast cancer) in women. 

Solutions to this women’s health epidemic include:

  • prevention by reducing smoking rates
  • improving early detection
  • advancing therapeutic strategies
  • routine cancer screenings

Through early detection and early intervention, patients have the best shot at stopping these killers in their tracks. 

Women’s health crises impacts everyone. Awareness saves lives.

Up next:

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Nicole M. Geissen is assistant professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Rush University Medical Center, associate program director of the Cardiothoracic Residency Program and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.