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Reeve's Death Puts Focus on Women's Lung Cancer Risk

More research needed into gender-based disease differences, experts say

WEDNESDAY, March 8, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Experts say it may take the illness and death of Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, to finally swing attention to lung cancer's grim toll on women -- even women who, like Reeve, never smoked.

In fact, 20 percent of the thousands of American women diagnosed with lung cancer each year never used tobacco. And for reasons that remain unclear, nonsmoking women are more likely to develop a lung malignancy than nonsmoking men.

"We need to understand why younger women are more likely to get the disease, why there are molecular differences in lung cancer between men and women, and why there are treatment differences between men and women," said Regina Vidaver, executive director of Women Against Lung Cancer, which lobbies on behalf of more research into lung cancer.

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death for both genders, killing 72,000 women each year in the United States -- about 30,000 more than succumb to breast cancer annually, Vidaver pointed out.

"It's a sad thing that it takes a celebrity's death to highlight that this is the leading cancer killer of both men and women," Vidaver said.

Reeve's death also highlights the fact that people don't have to smoke to get this disease. "In fact, one in five women who develop lung cancer have never smoked -- the figure is about half that for men," she said.

Dr. Sharon I.S. Rounds, the immediate past president of the American Thoracic Society and chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Brown Medical School, agreed with Vidaver. "The problem of lung cancer among women is not well-recognized by the public," she said. "Lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women in 1987."

Lung cancer remains the leading cancer killer of both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society. This year, there will be an estimated 162,460 deaths from lung cancer -- 90,330 among men and 72,130 among women -- which accounts for about 28 percent of all cancer deaths, the society notes.

"For women, that's more than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer deaths combined," Rounds said. "And lung cancer kills more people than the three next most common cancers combined -- that's colon, breast and prostate cancer," she added.

Other factors besides smoking can predispose individuals to lung cancer, such as radiation exposure, asbestos exposure and exposure to secondhand smoke or other environmental causes. In addition, scientists suspect that lung cancer has a genetic component, too, Rounds noted.

While lung malignancies do differ between men and women, the disease is generally not more aggressive in women than it is in men, Vidaver said. "Every tumor in every single individual is different, and so you cannot make a blanket assessment about aggressiveness," she said.

But Rounds said we still know far too little about the disease. "There needs to be a better understanding of how lung cancer is caused, how to prevent it and how to diagnosis it and how to treat it more effectively," she said.

Both experts said there's no effective, accepted screening test for lung cancer. The result: Most cancer is diagnosed in an advanced stage when it is exceedingly tough to treat. An accurate early detection test would mean earlier diagnosis and, for many patients, a more optimistic prognosis.

"To me the fact that we don't have a screening test for the biggest cancer killer in the nation is the best indicator of how little resources have been put toward this disease," Vidaver said. "It is absolutely abhorrent to me that we don't have a screening test for this disease."

Trials into a promising new screening method are currently under way, Rounds said. "But there are no conclusive results yet," she added.

Vidaver believes much of the blame for the paucity of research into lung cancer belongs with the U.S. government.

"We don't understand very much about this at all," Vidaver said. "It's primarily due to the federal government not providing funding commensurate with this disease's death toll. We need to have more research done. That's the only way that we are going to end up saving lives."

More information

For much more on lung cancer, head to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Regina Vidaver, Ph.D., executive director, Women Against Lung Cancer, Madison, Wisc.; Sharon I.S. Rounds, M.D., immediate past president, American Thoracic Society, chief, pulmonary and critical care medicine, Brown Medical School, Providence, R.I.; American Cancer Society, Atlanta
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