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Nonsmoking Men, Women Face Same Lung Cancer Death Risk

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter on 05/16/2006

TUESDAY, May 16 (HealthDay News) -- The death from lung cancer earlier this year of Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, brought the plight of nonsmokers who get the killer disease into public view.

The fact is, one in every five people diagnosed with lung cancer has never touched a cigarette.

But a new study finds that, among people who have never smoked, deaths from lung cancer are no higher in women than they are in men.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, we did not find that women who never smoked were more likely to get lung cancer than their male counterparts," said lead author Dr. Michael Thun, vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society.

The report appears in the May 17 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

One of the sources of that misperception is that doctors think they see more women with lung cancer who have never smoked than men, Thun said. But that's probably due to the fact that older females who never smoked outnumber males by nearly three to one.

"There are more women over the age of 60 who have never smoked. There are over 16 million women in that category, and about 6.5 million men," Thun said.

In their study, Thun and his colleagues collected data on 940,000 adults who had never smoked. These people had participated in two American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study groups. The researchers looked at death rates from lung cancer in these patients.

They found that lung cancer death rates were similar for men and women. For reasons that remain unclear, they also found that lung cancer death rates were higher in nonsmoking black women than in white women.

"However, we found no evidence that the death rate from lung cancer was changing among people who never smoked from the time of the first study, in 1959, to now," Thun said.

Cancer death rates among men who had never smoked were 17.1 per 100,000 person years, and 14.7 per 100,000 for never-smoking women. Black women who had never smoked had a death rate that was 43 percent higher than that of white women with a similar history.

Overall, Thun said, "these findings are reassuring. They recognize that most lung cancer comes from smoking. Even though lung cancer among nonsmokers is uncommon, lung cancer in general gets shortchanged in terms of research dollars. It is not funded commensurate to its burden in suffering and death," he said.

Thun said that the reason lung cancer research is underfunded is because many believe it's "the patient's fault" if he or she gets lung cancer. "Lung cancer doesn't have an advocacy group like breast and prostate cancer, because survival is typically short, and because people who get lung cancer are blamed for it being their own fault," he said. "In reality, it's the cigarette companies' fault," he added.

One expert agrees that more research is needed in preventing and treating lung cancer.

"We need to come up with a lung cancer screening program," said Dr. Scott Swanson, chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City. "Physicians need to be aggressive about thinking about lung cancer even among nonsmokers," he added.

"Breast cancer is funded at a four-to-one level to lung cancer by the National Cancer Institute, even though lung cancer kills four times more people than breast cancer," Swanson said. "We need to get more funding."

He noted that, too often, lung cancer is diagnosed far too late for treatment to be effective. "There is no program to find it until someone is coughing up blood or has pain," he said. "We need to be screening, and we need to be doing the research."

The good news is that when lung cancer is diagnosed early, it has an 80 percent cure rate, Swanson said. "It's like other cancers -- we just have to find it early."

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