What are the signs of lung cancer in women?
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), lung cancer is the second most common type in males and females, not counting skin cancer. For both sexes, it is the leading cause of cancer-related death.
The American Lung Association report that lung cancer rates have decreased by 35% in males over the last 41 years, but the rates in females have risen by 87%.
In this article, we look at the effects of lung cancer in females, as well as risk factors, treatments, and the outlook.
The single greatest risk factor for lung cancer is smoking cigarettes and inhalation of secondhand smoke. This is regardless of gender.
Males and females experience very similar symptoms of lung cancer, which can include:
- shortness of breath
- a persistent, worsening cough
- difficulty swallowing
- a loss of appetite
- weight loss
- ongoing chest pain
- coughing up blood
- recurrent lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis
Anyone who experiences these symptoms should see a doctor.
The risk factors for lung cancer are similar among males and females. They include:
- cigarette smoking
- exposure to secondhand smoke
- exposure to asbestos, smoke, or radon
- a family history of lung cancer
- a personal history of lung disease, including lung cancer
- a poor diet
Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke remain the most significant risk factors for lung cancer.
Genetic and hormonal differences
A 2014 review, published in Seminars in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, proposes that certain genes and hormones contribute to an increased lung cancer mortality rate in females.
The researchers have identified several genes that may explain the differing rates of lung cancer among females and males. A person can inherit some of these genes, while tobacco exposure activates others.
KRAS is a gene, and any mutation in it may make cancerous tumors grow more quickly. A mutation may also make the tumors more likely to spread.
The review suggests that KRAS mutations may make lung cancer growth more aggressive after exposure to estrogen, a female sex hormone, as well as other hormones.
The review associates gastric-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) activity with cancer cell growth.
This receptor is more active in females, and exposure to estrogen may increase its effects.
Epidermal growth factor (EGFR) is a protein that is often present in people with lung cancer. Mutations in the gene that produces EGFR are significantly more common in females than in males.
HER2 is a part of the EGFR group of genes present in many cases of adenocarcinoma. HER2 has links to poorer survival rates among females with lung cancer.
Researchers have found estrogen receptors on lung cancer cells from males and females.
The same 2014 review on genes and hormones in lung cancer development suggested that estrogen encourages the growth of tumor cells. It has also demonstrated the cancer-suppressing effects of treatments that block estrogen.
Long term exposure to estrogen may affect lung cancer risk. Factors that may affect estrogen levels include:
- the number of pregnancies, if any
- the age at first menstruation
- the age at which menopause began
Radiation therapy may be a recommended treatment for lung cancer, often alongside surgery if possible.
The right treatments for lung cancer depend on the cancer's stage at diagnosis.
If the lung cancer has spread significantly, surgery is usually not an option. At this stage, a doctor may still recommend radiation therapy to help control complications and reduce pain and discomfort.
Traditionally, there was no difference in how doctors treated lung cancer in males and females.
However, research exploring hormonal and genetic aspects of lung cancer has led to new therapies that may be more effective in females than males.
Also, medications that target specific proteins or receptors appear to be more effective at treating lung cancer in females who do not smoke.
While the symptoms are similar, the rates of cancer and cancer-related death are different among males and females. More research is necessary to reduce the risk of the disease.
Lung cancer has a poor prognosis.
The ACS use 5-year survival rates to estimate a person's life expectancy after diagnosis. This figure conveys the likelihood that a person with a certain type and stage of cancer will live for at least 5 years after the diagnosis.
Maintaining a healthful lifestyle and avoiding exposure to smoke can help everyone reduce their risk of developing lung cancer.