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Gender and Lung Cancer

Differences Between Women and Men With Lung Cancer


Updated June 25, 2014

When it comes to lung cancer, the saying, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” rings true. There are differences between the way men and women develop lung cancer as well as their response to treatment. These differences are helpful to note, especially when women look at statistics regarding lung cancer survival. Statistics usually lump men and women together, but for women, the chances of survival are higher at all stages of the disease. We are just beginning to learn how genetic and hormonal influences play a role in the development of lung cancer and what might explain these differences. How do men and women differ in the development of, and response to, lung cancer?

Incidence of Lung Cancer in Women

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States, accounting for almost twice as many deaths as breast cancer. The incidence of lung cancer is greater in men than in women, but women are catching up. In 2008, it is estimated that there will be 114,690 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed in men and 100,330 in women in the United States. Unlike men, a greater percentage of women that develop lung cancer have never smoked and roughly 20% of lung cancer deaths in women occur in lifelong nonsmokers.

Age of Lung Cancer Diagnosis in Women

Women tend to be slightly younger, by an average of two years, at the age of diagnosis than men.

Risk of Lung Cancer in Women

Some studies suggest that women are more susceptible to the carcinogens in cigarettes and develop lung cancer after fewer years of smoking. Other studies do not show an increased risk of lung cancer in women versus men that smoke. There has also been a perception that lung cancer is more common in nonsmoking women than nonsmoking men, but this does not appear to be the case in more recent studies. Even though the percentage of nonsmoking women who develop lung cancer is higher than men, women do not appear to be more sensitive to other lung cancer carcinogens, and this likely stems from a higher number of men versus women who smoked in the past. A recent study indicates that estrogen may promote growth of lung tumors, which may account for the earlier age of diagnosis in women.

Lung Cancer Treatment in Women

Women historically respond to a few chemotherapy medications used for lung cancer better than men. One of the newer targeted therapies, Tarceva (erlotinib), also appears to be more effective for women, especially younger women.

Survival from Lung Cancer in Women

Women are more likely to survive lung cancer at all stages of the disease. This survival advantage over men is greatest for local disease, where surgical treatment of lung cancer offers a greater chance for a cure in women than in men.

Women and Lung Cancer Prevention

Since 80% of lung cancers in women are related to smoking, by far the most important step both women and men can take to reduce their risk is to quit smoking. Lung cancer does occur in nonsmoking women to a greater percent than men, but many of these other exposures, such as radon in the home, are preventable as well.

Suggested Reading:


American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2008. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/STT/content/STT_1x_Cancer_Facts_and_Figures_2008.asp

Bain, C. et al. Lung cancer rates in men and women with comparable histories of smoking. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2004. 96(11):826-34.

Fu, J. et al. Lung Cancer in Women: Analysis of the National Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Database. Chest. 2005. 127:768-777.

Hammond, Z. et al. Estrogen promotes tumor progression in a genetically defined mouse model of adenocarcinoma. Endocrine-Related Cancer. 2008. 15(20:475-483.

Radzikowska, E. et al. Lung cancer in women: age, smoking, histology, performance status, stage, initial treatment on survival. Population-based study of 20,561 cases. Annals of Oncology. 2002. 13:1087-1093.

Thun, M. et al. Lung Cancer Death Rates in Lifelong Nonsmokers. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2006. 98(10):691-694.

Wisnivesky, J. and E. Holm. Sex Differences in Lung Cancer Survival: Do Tumors Behave Differently in Elderly Women?. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2007. 25(13):1705-1712.

Women’s Susceptibility to Tobacco Carcinogens and Survival After Diagnosis of Lung Cancer. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2006. 296:180-184.

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