1 in 15 women are diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime, but 79% of lung cancer cases are preventable.
Here, we look at what women need to know about lung cancer, what the risk factors are, and how they can prevent it.
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the UK. It tends to start in the windpipe, the main airway, or the lung tissue. When lung cancer develops in the lungs first, it’s called primary lung cancer. If cancer is detected elsewhere in the body and then spreads to the lungs, it’s called secondary lung cancer.
On average, more than 43,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, showing just how prevalent it is — although it’s not very common in those under 40 years old.
Typically, there are no early warning signs of lung cancer, and it’s not until the cancer has reached its later stages that symptoms become apparent.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer in females
Symptoms of lung cancer in women are similar to those experienced by men.
Symptoms can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Constant or persistent cough
- Coughing up blood
- Unexplainable weight loss
- Lung infections
However, women can develop different types of lung cancer than men — which can cause different symptoms. For example, women who develop lung cancer in other parts of their lungs may show signs of fatigue and shoulder or back pain much earlier on.
These symptoms might not necessarily lead you to think it could be lung cancer, so any changes in your health must be looked at by a medical professional.
Lung cancer risk factors
Risk factors are something that can increase your chances of developing lung cancer. It’s important to note that just because you have some of the risk factors, it doesn’t mean you’re going to develop lung cancer.
The most common lung cancer risk factors include:
- Smoking cigarettes and second-hand smoke — your risk increases with each cigarette you smoke or inhale
- Asbestos exposure — while this isn’t as common nowadays, it’s still an issue that some people face
- Family history of lung cancer
- Air pollution
Some risk factors are also things that you can change in your life, so working to eliminate them is vital for reducing your risk of lung cancer. For example, smoking and asbestos exposure can be limited in your lifetime, whereas a family history and air pollution cannot.
The estimated lifetime risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer is 1 in 13 (8%) for men and 1 in 15 (7%) for women born after 1960 in the UK. While it seems that lung cancer is slightly more prevalent in men, that doesn’t mean that women aren’t as impacted. Women are only marginally less likely to develop lung cancer.
One recent study found that women between 30 and 49 years old are now more likely to develop lung cancer worldwide than men. The study also revealed that the most common type of lung cancer in younger women was adenocarcinoma — which can be caused by smoking (though it also appears in people who don’t smoke).
Why are female lung cancer rates increasing?
Although women are said to be slightly less likely to develop lung cancer, it does seem that the rate of diagnoses is increasing.
The increased rates of lung cancer in women could be caused by the fact that women are smoking more — with 2.9 million women in the UK reported as being current smokers. This high number of female smokers will be having an impact on the rates of lung cancer diagnoses in women as smoking is one of the main causes.
In some countries, tobacco marketing is focused towards women, which could be another factor in the increased lung cancer rates. In many countries now, women have a lot more freedom and can decide to take up smoking whenever they want. More women can afford tobacco in low-and-middle-income countries that are experiencing economic growth too. This shift in gender norms could be why there’s now an increased risk of women developing lung cancer at a younger age.
Around 64% of those that die from lung cancer caused by second-hand smoke are women. This could be for many different reasons, such as a partner smoking inside the house.
Women must be aware of the early signs of lung cancer — the earlier you’re diagnosed, the better your prognosis looks.
How is lung cancer diagnosed?
Testing for lung cancer is important, especially if you are experiencing any symptoms. It’s always better to have testing done sooner rather than later so any cancer can be detected in its early stages.
Common lung cancer tests can include:
- X-ray – an X-ray is typically the first test that a doctor will do when checking for lung cancer. However, the X-ray may have to be combined with other tests as the images will show any mass on the lungs, not just cancer. If an X-ray suggests that you may have lung cancer, then you’ll most likely be referred for further testing to confirm
- CT scans – A CT scan uses a computer to generate images of the inside of the body that are a lot more detailed than an X-ray. The scan will only take 10 to 30 minutes and is completely painless.
If you’ve quit smoking or you’re worried about the health of your lungs, having a full medical check — including a low-dose lung CT scan — can help put your mind at ease and make sure anything potentially worrisome is detected early.
If you’ve been confirmed to have lung cancer, your doctor will then determine how developed it is so that a treatment plan can be put in place. They’ll need to ascertain the size of the tumour, if cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, and if it’s spread to another area of the body.
Lung cancer testing is very accurate, and the earlier you’re tested the better.
Is lung cancer preventable?
While you can’t prevent lung cancer completely, you can take steps to lower your risk of developing it. Some risk factors can’t be changed, so you must look at changing the ones that can.
How can women reduce their risk of lung cancer?
Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Once you’ve stopped smoking for 15 years, the chances of you getting lung cancer are almost the same as if you had never smoked in the first place.
This doesn’t mean that if you’ve been smoking your whole life and you’re older, you shouldn’t give up. Even not smoking for just one year can make a huge difference to your risk of lung cancer.
Eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains has been shown to help lower your risk of developing lung cancer too. Alongside this, you want to make sure you exercise regularly, as again, this can decrease your risk.
Early detection is an excellent way to catch and treat lung cancer before it’s too late. At Echelon Health, we offer many early detection services such as a CT chest scan so you can keep your health in check. These early detection services can help you get the best prognosis possible. However, for a more holistic approach to women’s health we have also created the Cullinan Assessment. The Cullinan Assessment is designed for women who are 40 years of age or older and is intended to allow for early detection of diseases associated with this stage of life as well as the diseases that are the leading causes of premature death in women, including coronary heart disease. The following scans are part of this assessment:
- Medical questionnaire
- Comprehensive bloods + Hormonal Profile + cancer markers
- Digital mammogram
- Transvaginal Ultrasound
- CT Coronary angiogram
- CT Chest
- CT Bone Density
- Full Body Mole Check
- Final consultation
Get in touch with our team of experts at Echelon Health, and discover what assessments and tests can help you take control of your health. We are always happy to assist with your questions and arranging your health assessments. You can also follow the link to our full range of early-detection scans.