Once again I hear the excitement in the headlines - cancer death rates are dropping.
But for me the news feels bittersweet. Reading through the report elicited feelings reminiscent of those I felt when I once attended a baby shower and a funeral on the same day.
First the expectant news - and it is exciting. Cancer death rates in the U.S. dropped 2% for men during the period from 2001 to 2006, and 1.5% for women from 2002 to 2006. This represents a decline in the death rate from the 4 major cancers in both men and women, except...
The somber news. Lung cancer deaths in women continue to increase, though they appear to be stabilizing.
Now the confusing news. Everything I have read dismisses this increase as simply due to the later onset of smoking in women. Women started smoking 20 years later than men. To me - this seems like an easy way to overlook that one race that was lost and focus on the blue ribbons. After all, if it is all smoking, the lost race should be easy to win next time, right?
For those who have done some contemplating after reading the book Freakanomics, some things that seem pretty clear-cut lose their clarity when we look at statistics. What do we know about women, lung cancer, and smoking?
Well...20% of women who develop lung cancer have never touched a cigarette. Another 50% quit in the past. All of the smoking cessation programs available aren't going to make a difference for those 70% plus. And we believe that one form of lung cancer - bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC) - is increasing in incidence even though it commonly hits younger, non-smoking women.
So as the parade marches on in celebration, I have to stand on the sidelines with my yellow flag saying "slow down!" Why aren't we looking at causes of lung cancer other than smoking in women? Why aren't we as adamant about asking everyone to check their home for radon (the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers) as we are about outlawing smoking in restaurants? Why aren't we reaching out to women, talking about how the early symptoms of lung cancer may be different than they are in men, and how recognizing those symptoms may help us find those cancers in the earlier, more curable stages?
Banding together and wearing pink ribbons seems to have made a difference; breast cancer deaths are declining. Isn't it time we wear the less visible clear or white ribbons for lung cancer?
Have you or your group done anything to raise awareness or funding for lung cancer? Please share your stories in our new "Show and Tell" feature:
Photo: National Cancer Institute/Bill Branson (photographer)
Jemal, A. et al. Cancer Statistics, 2010. CA A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Published online before print July 7, 2010. doi: 10.3322/caac.20073.