Special Report: Your Most Hidden Cancer Risk

Whether they smoke or not, women run a much higher risk of developing lung cancer than men. Here's what you can do about it

The number of American women who smoke has long lagged behind the number of men whose cigarettes cloud the air outside restaurants and airport departure gates. But the most recent research indicates that as more women take up smoking, they are developing lung cancer and dying from it at a significantly higher rate than their male counterparts are.

"Women started smoking later than men did--and that's part of the reason that we are currently seeing an ever-increasing rate of lung cancer among women," explains Claudia Henschke, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Chest Imaging at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City.

But only part:. When Dr. Henschke recently analyzed the research on tobacco's health effects, she found that women smokers are three times more likely to develop lung cancer than are male smokers. Even more surprising: Women who have never smoked appear to be more than twice as likely as male nonsmokers to develop lung cancer.

Why? DNA repair--the way cells repair damage to their genetic blueprints--in women could somehow be lacking," speculates Dr. Henschke. "Maybe an enzyme plays a role. Interesting evidence is gradually emerging, but we do not have an answer yet."

How to Catch It Early
Current or former smoker? Have a spiral CT scan every year, Dr. Henschke recommends. Ask your physician to refer you to a center that performs spiral CTs, a 20-second x-ray of your lungs that can detect cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage.

Cost can range from $175 to more than $300 and isn't always covered by health insurance. But the status report is well worth the expense, especially, notes Dr. Henschke, if you're a woman.

"Just 7% of lung cancers are currently found in stage 1A-which is the earliest and most curable stage," explains Dr. Henschke. "But using the spiral CT, we've been able to detect 80% in stage 1A."

Nonsmoker? Don't overlook the warning signs. See your physician immediately if you have a persistent cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, bloody phlegm, recurring respiratory infections, chest pain, weight loss, or decreased appetite.

Quick Tip
Ready to quit? The American Cancer Society can help with information and support. Call (800) 227-2345.

PHOTO (COLOR): You may need this new, lifesaving lung test.

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Edited by Sari Harrar

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