Press Releases

May 18, 2016

Lung Cancer: A Women's Health Imperative

Today, the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) released a report, Lung Cancer: A Women’s Health Imperative, to bring greater awareness to the impact this deadly cancer has on women and to demonstrate a need for a national strategy to address the study of sex- and gender-specific aspects of the disease.

The American Cancer Society estimates that, in 2016, 106,470 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with lung cancer and more than 72,000 women will die from the disease. Despite substantial improvements in the overall survival rates for many cancers, including prostate, breast, and colon, lung cancer survival rates have only risen to 18.8 percent over the past three decades (up from13.2 percent). Yet funding for lung cancer research lags far behind funding for other types of cancer.

The new report is a follow-up to Out of the Shadows: Women and Lung Cancer, published five years ago. Since then, scientists have begun to unlock knowledge on how sex- and gender-specific genetic, hormonal, behavioral, and environmental factors influence patterns of lung cancer in women compared to men. Specifically, the report highlights the following:
•Women are at higher risk for lung cancer due to genetic susceptibility and hormonal impact.
•Sex hormones, particularly estrogen, influence lung cancer risk, development and mortality.
•Controversy persists on whether women who smoke are more likely than men to develop lung cancer, suggesting a need for additional research.
•Although smoking is an important risk factor for lung cancer, one in five of women who develop lung cancer have never smoked. Non-smoking women are three times as likely as non- smoking men to get the disease.
•Women have higher five-year survival rates than men across all ages with comparable stages of lung cancer.

The report was released at a Congressional briefing on Women and Lung Cancer hosted by the Lung Cancer Alliance in coordination with the Congressional Lung Cancer Caucus. The briefing included a moderated panel discussion with panelist Yolonda Colson, MD, PhD, director of the Women’s Lung Cancer Program at BWH. “Despite an increased knowledge about these disparities, lung cancer continues to kill more women in the U.S. each year than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined, and non-smoking women are still three times as likely as non-smoking men to get lung cancer,” said Colson. “Now is the time to accelerate research on sex- and gender-specific factors that affect the risks, screening, treatment, and mortality of this disease.”

"We applaud the release of this timely and authoritative report from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that grounds our call to action on this women's health imperative," said Laurie Fenton Ambrose, President & CEO of Lung Cancer Alliance. “It informs a long overdue push for a better legislative strategy to prioritize this issue and improve outcomes for those impacted by this disease, the number one cancer killer of women.

The authors also stress the need to address the disparity between women and men in lung cancer research. Women, particularly those from racial and ethnic minorities, are less likely to be enrolled in lung cancer clinical trials than men. Even when studies do include women, researchers often fail to analyze data by sex- or gender-specific factors, such as hormone status, making it difficult to uncover differences in incidence, prevalence, survivability, and treatment responses between men and women.

“Our report includes policy implications and recommendations to nurture the innovations that are possible with a more focused approach on lung cancer in women and sex- and gender-specific medical research to combat this deadly disease,” said Therese Fitzgerald, PhD, MSW director of the Women’s Health Policy and Advocacy Program at the Connors Center at BWH. The report’s policy recommendations include: making the public aware of important differences in the way the disease develops in women and men, creating a national strategy to accelerate the implementation of preventive lung cancer screening services for women, and increased funding for sex- and gender-specific lung cancer research to bridge the gaps in lung cancer innovations.

Corresponding bi-partisan and bi-cameral legislation is being introduced in Congress that reflects the findings in the report and brings renewed focus on the impact of lung cancer on women