lung cancer and women

Featuring Troy A. Moritz, DO, FACOS

It used to be that if you were a smoker, your chances of acquiring lung cancer were high. Yet, the numbers of non-smokers account for 10 percent of the total number of Americans who get lung cancer each year. Even scarier, one in five women with lung cancer has never smoked and the diagnosis rate among women is increasing.

Radon gas is the leading cause of cancer in non-smoking individuals, taking 20,000 lives each year. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Pennsylvania is one state rated with a high incidence of naturally occurring radon gas.

The risk of lung cancer is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house. Because radon gas can’t be seen or smelled, the only way to know whether it’s a problem in your home is to test for it.

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Another risk factor for lung cancer is second-hand smoke. It is a real threat, despite claims that spending time around smokers isn’t dangerous. Each year, an estimated 3,400 non-smoking adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke. In recent years, cancer researchers have devoted more attention to non-smoking patients, partially because they saw about one-third of patients with tumors respond to targeted therapies (Healthnet.com). Research is being done to determine the role of estrogen in female lung cancer patients, which may affect lung cancer treatment options and incidences of mortality rates among women.

There are a few documented factors in this statistic including genetics and gene mutations. An article published in Clinical Cancer Research explains that a particular kind of gene mutation is much more common in lung cancer in non-smokers than smokers.

This mutation activates a gene that normally helps cells grow and divide, in turn, promotes faster growth of the lung cancer cells. Knowing what causes the cell changes has helped researchers develop targeted therapies, drugs that specifically target these mutations.

Adenocarcinoma, the most common form of lung cancer affecting women, develops in the outer regions of the lungs, and often does not cause the “classic” signs of lung cancer. Instead, women with early-stage lung cancer may experience fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest or back pain. In other words, symptoms that easily could be dismissed or found in any busy woman’s life who is juggling a career, family, or both.

As most of us know, women historically put their health and needs last, so it’s important that any sudden or ongoing symptoms are not ignored. A lung tumor could grow to be very large and spread without warning. Non-small cell cancer is aggressive and usually is found at a later stage, which is harder to treat, according to the American Cancer Society. So what should you do if you are concerned about yourself or someone you love? In a word: screenings.

According to Medicinenet.com, the top five reasons non-smokers get lung cancer include:

  • Passive smoking (3,000 deaths/year from second-hand smoke)
  • Radon gas
  • Asbestos
  • Heredity/Genetics
  • Air pollution (An estimated 2,000 deaths/year result from breathing polluted air)

Lung cancer screenings look for potentially cancerous spots in the lung called pulmonary nodules. Screening is best performed with a low-dose CT scan, which can detect nodules up to 10 times smaller than those that can be seen by X-ray. This approach offers the best chance of finding lung cancer in its earliest, most curable stages.

UPMC Pinnacle was the first hospital in central Pennsylvania to be designated as a Lung Cancer Screening Center of Excellence. UPMC Pinnacle is also recognized as a top-quality provider of safe, effective diagnostic imaging for individuals at high risk for lung cancer.

UPMC Pinnacle has the only multidisciplinary Pulmonary Nodule clinic in the region. This team of skilled specialists – thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists, interventional radiologists, and nurse practitioners – will evaluate your condition, monitor changes, and manage your care and treatment if there is a cancer diagnosis.

Staying up-to-date on the latest lung cancer research allows us to provide the most effective, leading-edge treatments for all our patients, particularly women where many of these findings are new.

Women have improved survival rates compared to men with treatment for non-small cell lung cancer, regardless of age, stage, therapeutic modality, or histology (a microscopic type of cancer). This survival advantage for women has been demonstrated with surgery for early-stage disease as well as radiation and/or chemotherapy for advanced disease.

The best defense, however, is an offense. Lung cancer screening is an option for eligible individuals without symptoms. Talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with the Pulmonary Nodule Clinic at UPMC Pinnacle by calling (717) 988-5864 (LUNG). If you have any of the symptoms below, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Lung cancer symptoms vary from person to person however, common symptoms include:

  • A cough that doesn’t away and gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain, often made worse by deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Arm shoulder or pain
  • Coughing up blood or rust-color spit
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
  • Repeated episodes of pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Swelling of the face and neck
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • Feeling tired or weak

About UPMC Pinnacle

UPMC Pinnacle is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Pinnacle includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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