By: Cheryl Healton, DrPH – Director of the Global Institute of Public Health, Dean of College of Global Public Health, New York University
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death of women both in the United States and around the world. It claims more lives of women than breast and all gynecological cancers – combined. Today in the U.S., an estimated 193 women will die of lung cancer each day, that’s one every 7 minutes.
Despite substantial improvements in overall survival rates for many cancers, including prostate (99.3%), breast (90.8%), and colon (66.2%), lung cancer survival rates have only risen to 18.8% over the past three decades up from 13.2%. The impact of this disease is enormous, and yet funding for lung cancer research lags far behind funding for other types of cancer. Why?
First, the stigma associated with lung cancer is a leading factor, contributing to commonly held opinions that the disease is a “self-inflicted smoker’s disease.” But surprisingly, close to 80% of those diagnosed are actually never or former smokers.
Second, lung cancer has lacked a compassionate and comprehensive plan of action that links prevention efforts with early detection and treatment research. This lack of coordination within the continuum of care has caused stagnation of lung cancer’s survival rates for years.
Third, lung cancer remains the least funded cancer despite it claiming the most lives each year. An estimated 70,500 U.S. women will lose their lives to the disease this year alone. We can and must do better for our mothers, our daughters, sisters, aunts and grandmothers.
The truth is smoking does play a role, but that is only one part of the puzzle. What is the explanation for the increasing rates of lung cancer in women who never smoke? Nobody really knows because there has not been a concerted effort at the federal level to gain a better understanding of how this disease impacts women differently than men.
Ever since I started my career in public health several decades ago, I have seen movement across many public health fronts on everything from tobacco control to substance abuse to HIV/AIDS that has brought increases in survivorship and quality of life. It is time to galvanize public health and policy leaders into action to improve the lives of women, and men, at risk for or living with lung cancer.
The good news is that many important efforts are now underway.
Recently, a bipartisan, bicameral Congressional effort led by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the Senate and by Congressmen Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Rick Nolan (D-MN) in the House of Representatives introduced legislation making the study of lung cancer in women a national health priority. The Women and Lung Cancer Research and Preventive Services Act of 2018 seeks to develop research strategies to explore the differences of lung cancer in women with respect to risk factors, incidence and response to treatment. It also will consider ways to accelerate the implementation of preventive services for women and the development of national public education and awareness programs about the impact on women and the importance of early detection.
This is a powerful and positive step forward to advance the types of public health gains we have seen for other diseases. What we learn about women with lung cancer will propel breakthroughs in early detection and treatment for the entire community.
How can you help? Contact your Congressman to ask them to join the legislative effort.
It is high time that we make lung cancer a women’s health imperative. By bringing greater awareness to and devising a more comprehensive national strategy for lung cancer – we will unlock knowledge, accelerate research and improve survival and mortality rates – not only for women – but all who are impacted by lung cancer. Thank you.