Lung cancer in women

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women in the UK. It kills almost 4,000 more women each year than breast cancer.

Watch a video showing how smoking ruins your looks

In 2008, more than 17,900 women were diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK, making it the third most common cancer in women after breast cancer and bowel cancer.

Lung cancer is declining among men, but the rate among women remains high. Between 1993 and 2008, cases of lung cancer in men fell by almost a third, while cases in women increased by 11%. 

Smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, but it's only part of the story. A high proportion of lung cancers in women occur in those who have never smoked (about one in six). There are other important differences between the sexes that make women more vulnerable than men. 

Women’s lungs are more vulnerable

Several studies have indicated that women are more susceptible to developing lung cancer than men. Female smokers are twice as likely to develop lung cancer as male smokers, even when they smoke fewer cigarettes over a shorter period of time. Even among non-smokers, the risk of developing lung cancer is higher among women than men.  

The reason for this is not yet clear, but it could be genetic. Scientists have discovered that a gene which speeds up lung cancer growth is more active in women. Studies have also suggested that the female hormone, oestrogen, may play a part in the development of lung cancer among women.

Women are more addicted to smoking

Women tend to find it harder to give up smoking than men. They have a higher rate of relapse and are much less likely to succeed using nicotine replacement products such as gum. 

Scientists think this is because women are less physically dependent on nicotine than men but more behaviourally addicted, which is a more difficult type of addiction to kick. 

A useful fact for women trying to give up smoking is that you’re twice as likely to succeed if you stop in the second half of your menstrual cycle. The high levels of the hormone progesterone in your bloodstream at this point in your cycle can help to move nicotine out of your system more quickly, therefore reducing withdrawal symptoms.

The good news

It’s not all bad news for women. On the positive side: 

  • Evidence suggests that when women quit smoking, their lungs recover more quickly than men's.
  • Women with lung cancer usually live longer than men with the disease. 

Find lots of advice and practical tips for stopping smoking.

How will smoking affect your appearance?

Megan is 16 and a smoker. A make-up artist transforms her appearance to demonstrate the effects that smoking will have on her body. Will the results make Megan rethink her habit?

Media last reviewed: 24/09/2013

Next review due: 24/09/2015

Page last reviewed: 16/05/2013

Next review due: 16/05/2015

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