Which cancer kills the most American women?

Hint: It does not come wrapped in a pink ribbon.

Published November 17, 2006 9:16PM (EST)

Broadsheet public service announcement: Now that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is behind us, here's some bracing health news from the San Francisco Chronicle: Lung cancer actually kills more American women than any other cancer, in part because it's so difficult to diagnose and to treat.

While many fewer women are diagnosed with this disease than with breast cancer, lung cancer sufferers are far more likely to die from the disease: "More than 72,000 women nationwide are expected to die of lung cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. That's more than a quarter of all cancer deaths in women and 30,000 more deaths than from breast cancer," reports the Chronicle. "What's especially disturbing is the number of deaths compared with the number of cases -- the American Cancer Society is estimating fewer than 82,000 cases of lung cancer in women this year, compared with nearly 213,000 cases of breast cancer. In other words, most women who are diagnosed with lung cancer won't survive it."

For the past 20 years, lung cancer has been the most deadly cancer for American women, as it has been for American men for much longer than that. Changing attitudes toward women smoking help explain the increase among women in recent decades: "We had a two-decade delay for women," Thierry Jahan, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, told the paper. "It wasn't fashionable for women to smoke until the 1940s. Then it became socially acceptable for women to smoke, and lung cancer incidences increased in the '80s. There's no question we're seeing an epidemic of women getting lung cancer now."

Remember "You've come a long way, baby?" In the '60s and '70s, tobacco companies famously tied smoking cigarettes to feminism, making smoking a symbol of independence and equality, like this gem from Virginia Slims back in 1976, which associated the freedom to have a cigarette with women's suffrage.

Lest smokers reading this reach for another butt in despair, it should be noted that 10 to 15 years after a smoker quits, her risk of premature death approaches that of a person who has never smoked, according to the National Cancer Institute. Just a decade after quitting, an ex-smoker's risk of dying from lung cancer is 30 percent to 50 percent less than the risk for those who continue to light up.

The federal government actually spends fewer research dollars on the fight against lung cancer than it spends attacking either breast cancer or prostate cancer. And there's no public movement to snuff out lung cancer that's as vocal as the public fight against breast cancer. In part, doctors say, this discrepancy relates to the belief that lung cancer patients bring the disease on themselves by smoking, despite the fact that 10 to 20 percent of them have never smoked a single butt.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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