As Prescribed: Lung cancer rates rise in young women despite the absence of smoking


SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – “The latest research actually shows that among young women – young women now are actually more likely than men – they’ve overtaken men in terms of their risk of developing lung cancer,” said Dr. Johannes Kratz, MD, a thoracic and cancer surgeon at UCSF.

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Kratz, who serves as the director of Advanced Minimally Invasive Thoracic Surgery at UCSF, joined KCBS Radio’s Alice Wertz on “As Prescribed” to discuss for a breakdown of the latest information we have about lung cancer. It is the deadliest single form of cancer in the U.S. today.

Just a few weeks ago, the American Cancer Society published research on JAMA Oncology about rising lung cancer rates in young women.

“Based on high-quality population-based data, we found that the higher lung cancer incidence in women than in men has not only continued in individuals younger than 50 years but also now extends to middle-aged adults as younger women with a high risk of the disease enter older age,” said the report.

Kratz explained that lung cancer is already a serious health problem in the U.S. that causes approximately 120,000 deaths annually. Traditionally, lung cancer has been more common in men, he said.

“It’s the second most frequently diagnosed cancer in the United States, but it is the number one cancer killer in the United States and worldwide,” he said. “Now, in terms of who has traditionally been getting lung cancer and who is most at risk, we all know that lung cancer is tied to having a history of smoking. And the longer you smoke, of course, the higher your risk of developing lung cancer.”

However, the recent rise in lung cancer among young people and among young women, isn’t tied to smoking.

“We don’t quite understand the reasons why,” Kratz said, adding that “women who are young are actually the fastest rising population who are getting lung cancer in the United States and likely worldwide.”

While the reasons for the uptick aren’t clear yet, doctors are already working on ways to deal with it. One method is increased screenings.

“Originally, when these lung cancer screening guidelines were promoted after a study that was released in 2011, the lung cancer screening guidelines included patients between the ages of 55 to 74 with a 30-year smoking history,” said Kratz. “That is to say, if you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years, then you would be eligible for a lung cancer screening, provided you were either still smoking or had quit within the past 15 years.”

With these guidelines in place, researchers found there was under-screening among underprivileged and minority populations. Now, they have been expanded, though they still focus on long-term smokers over age 50.

Although rates of lung cancer among young women are increasing, Kratz said it is still uncommon for non-smokers to develop the disease. Another risk factor that may prompt a lung cancer screening includes a family history of lung cancer diagnosis at an early age.

As far as potential symptoms, Kratz said that can unfortunately be vague and generalized.

“Lung cancer often doesn't get diagnosed until its later stage, because a lot of the symptoms that I’m about to talk about have a lot of different causes and not just lung cancer,” he told Wertz. “So, the most common symptoms include cough, including bloody cough – which it actually should be very alarming but is somewhat rare. But, a simple cough may be a symptom of lung cancer. Weight loss may be a symptom of lung cancer, or shortness of breath may be a symptom of lung cancer. And those kinds of things, unfortunately, are very common.”

Listen to this week’s “As Prescribed” to learn more.
You can also listen to last week’s “As Prescribed” about how genetic testing is improving fetal and infant care here

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