Though breast cancer has a bright pink ribbon and gets a lot of media attention, it isn’t the leading cause of cancer deaths among American women. The cancer that holds that honor is lung cancer. In fact, lung cancer causes more deaths than breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers combined. Here’s something else you might not know: The disease is on the decline among men, but diagnosis and death rates in women continue to climb. And, as with many other chronic diseases, black folks are more likely to develop and die from lung cancer than people of other racial groups, though we have lower smoking rates.
Here are five more important facts women should know:
1. Lung cancer can strike at any age. In an American Lung Association (ALA) survey, many women in their 20s and early 30s believed they were too young to be worried about lung cancer. Though the disease most often strikes between ages 55 and 65, there’s no lower age limit on new diagnoses. Here’s another age fact: Women younger than 45 are more likely than men of that age to develop the disease.
2. Nonsmokers can get lung cancer, too. In that same ALA survey, half of the women said they weren’t concerned about lung cancer since they had quit smoking or were nonsmokers. Smoking is the biggest risk factor, so if you smoke, you should make plans to quit. But 1 in 10 cases occurs in people who have never picked up a cigarette a day in their lives. As many as 24,000 nonsmokers who get lung cancer die every year. And this is another area in which women fare worse than men. Women who have never smoked stand a greater risk of developing lung cancer than men who have never smoked.
3. Women with lung cancer don’t fare so well. Once lung cancer spreads to the rest of your body, it’s difficult to control. Less than 50% of women whose doctors tell them they have lung cancer are alive a year after diagnosis. One reason lung cancer survival rates are so low is because you can have it for a long time without knowing it. Symptoms to look out for include a chronic cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, constant chest pain, and coughing up blood.
4. You may have to ask your doctor about being screened. For some people at high risk, a low-dose CT scan may detect lung cancer early enough to reduce the risk of death. If you are a current or former smoker, or you have symptoms of lung cancer, talk to your doctor about getting a screening test.
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