Female nonsmoker: What are your risks for lung cancer?



By Dr. Shalini Mulaparthi
For the Times Herald-Record

The recent death of Dana Reeve from lung cancer at age 44 put a spotlight on a devastating disease whose causes and prevention are frequently misunderstood.

In fact, it’s the very attention being given to the disease that is creating much of the confusion: Whenever circumstances increase the amount of public dialogue surrounding a serious disease, it can become difficult to distinguish between the useful and misguided – or outright false – information.

Lung cancer is, by far, the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States among both men and women.

Smoking is the primary cause, responsible for between 80 percent and 90 percent of diagnoses. If you don’t smoke, you significantly lessen your likelihood of a lung cancer diagnosis.

This indicates, of course, that between 10 percent and 20 percent of lung cancer sufferers are nonsmokers, an alarming statistic to those among us who don’t smoke.

The leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers is, nonetheless, smoking related – second-hand smoke. Nonsmokers who are frequently in close proximity to people who do smoke are at demonstrably heightened risk.

Two other causes are active exposure to radon gas or asbestos. We have made great progress in eliminating asbestos as a building material, but it remains important to regularly test our homes for inappropriate levels of radon gas.

Much of today’s public dialogue surrounds a growing, and controversial, belief that women are more susceptible to lung cancer than men. Certainly, the death of Dana Reeve – a female nonsmoker – has driven much of this speculation.

Yet there exists no scientific data that make a definitive case for this argument. Without knowing anything more about the Dana Reeve case than what has been reported in the media, it would seem logical that her years as a nightclub singer – during which she was likely exposed to extensive second-hand smoke – was a more likely culprit than her gender.

That said, there is indeed growing consideration within the medical community about a specific, gender-driven factor that may contribute to why one nonsmoking woman acquires lung cancer while another one does not.

That factor is hormones. Many medical researchers believe that certain women suffer from a proliferation of abnormal cells that makes them more susceptible to the disease. Research on this potential cause is in progress, and with luck will lead to further understanding of lung cancer’s causes and possible preventions among women.

Recent studies indicate that screenings appear to make little difference in preventing lung cancer. A variety of research that is under way might change this in the near-term, but the current reality is that screenings are not advisable, simply because they’re not especially helpful.

What is helpful?

First and foremost, if you’re a smoker, you can do nothing better for you and those around you than to quit today.

If you, unfortunately, already suffer from lung cancer, exciting new targeted therapies are emerging. These therapies are being researched extensively, and are bringing greater hope every day to people with lung cancer and their families.

Dr. Shalini Mulaparthi is an oncologist with Crystal Run Healthcare in the Town of Wallkill in Orange County and in Rock Hill in Sullivan.

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