Harvard Women's Health Watch

Lung cancer screening in women

Women seem to have a special vulnerability to lung cancer, whether they smoke or not. Is it time to be tested?

Since the 1970s, we've come a long way toward parity with men. Unfortunately, when it comes to lung cancer, we're passing them by. Women who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancer than men the same age with an equivalent smoking history. Even women who've never smoked are at greater risk for lung cancer than their male counterparts. The disease is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, claiming more lives than breast, ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancers combined.

What's often lost in these grim statistics are the thousands of women who beat the odds. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 70% of women whose lung cancers are detected at Stage I (confined to the lung, with no lymph node involvement) are alive five years later. Their survival rate is mainly the result of serendipity: Their tumors have shown up on images taken for other purposes. The cancers were still very small when discovered, and most could be eliminated with surgery alone.

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