Conventional wisdom for the last fifteen years has been that lung cancer was becoming a disease of women as well as men.
The graph (below) illustrates a monotonous increase in incidence of lung cancer in women through the end of the 1990’s to the point where the gender-specific curves appeared to be converging. Conventional wisdom was that men had gotten the message and had given up smoking but women lagged behind.
Now for the first time there is hope that women are getting the message. In a recent report from the National Cancer Institute (Kohler et al J Natl Cancer Inst 2011;103:1–23) there is evidence that a decade after the trend was first seen in men, between 2003 and 2007 there was a slight but significant decrease in the death rate from lung cancer among women. Whereas from 1975-2003 the death rate from lung cancer had almost doubled, from 2003-2007 the annual death rate fell by 0.9% per year, or 3.6% overall. One could argue that this is not much of an improvement, but it reversed a striking upward trend.
Since the treatment of lung cancer has resulted in only modest gains in survival, the improvement in mortality has to be ascribed to a lower incidence. The obvious change is in women who smoke. However, several authorities have noted that women born in the 1950’s and ‘60’s smoke have continued to smoke in higher numbers than women born in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Epidemiologists fear that the downward trend recently seen could be reversed by 2025 when these women would be expected to get lung cancer.
Nonetheless, it appears that the lung cancer epidemic in women is slowing down just a bit. Let’s hope that continued heightened awareness of the dangers of smoking prevails in the long run.