More lung cancer awareness among women needed

Babs Verblackt, CNS Special Correspondent, Belgium
While cancer in women often gets associated with breast cancer, there is an equal threat of lung cancer. In fact, in Europe death rates from lung cancer are expected to exceed those for breast cancer among women for the first time this year (2015). Public awareness remains low and should be improved, lung cancer organisations stress.

According to a study published in Annals of Oncology earlier this year, death rates from lung cancer in EU women will increase by 9% while the death rates from breast cancer are predicted to decrease by 10% since 2009.  Although the researchers stress to be cautious since these still are predictions, the numbers confirm earlier projections on long-term trends that lung cancer death rates would overtake breast cancer in women around 2015.

The study looked at cancer rates in the 28 member states of the European Union (EU) as a whole, plus the six largest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom (UK). The researchers from Italy and Switzerland studied the rates for all cancers, and, individually, for stomach, intestines, pancreas, lung, prostate, breast, uterus and leukemia. This is the fifth consecutive year the researchers have published these predictions.

Worst numbers in UK and Poland
The overall death rate for lung cancer among women is being driven by women in the UK and Poland, with predicted rates of 21 and 17 per 100,000 respectively. These rates are more than double of those in Spain, which has a lung cancer death rate among women of just over 8 per 100,000.

“UK and Polish women, particularly UK women, have long had much higher lung cancer rates than most other European countries (except Denmark, which is not considered separately in this study). This is due to the fact that British women started smoking during the Second World War, while in most other EU countries women started to smoke after 1968,” said one of the study authors Professor Carlo La Vecchia (MD), professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Milan, Italy, in a statement.

“It is worrying that female lung cancer rates are not decreasing in the UK, but this probably reflects the fact that there was an additional rise in smoking prevalence in the UK in the post-1968 generation – those born after 1950-- as well,” he said. “However, despite the relatively lower rates of women dying from lung cancer in other EU countries, the trends are less favourable in some countries, particularly in France and Spain.”

Co-author of the study Fabio Levi, Emeritus Professor at the Faculty of Biology and Medicine, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, said: “While the downward trends in overall cancer death rates is good news, smoking still remains the greatest cause of cancer deaths in the EU.” He added that smoking probably accounts for 85 to 90% of all lung cancers, and is implicated in a number of other cancers too.”

More awareness needed
"Startlingly, many people do not realise that lung cancer kills more women in the UK each year than any other cancer, including breast cancer,” Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, UK’s only lung cancer charity, told Citizen News Service.

"Worse still, mortality rates have increased over the past two decades and we are likely to see even greater numbers of mothers, daughters and sisters taken by lung cancer in the coming years. Yet the funding and marketing towards raising awareness of lung cancer is still shockingly thin.”

More awareness on lung cancer is urgently needed, Chatwick adds. "It is vitally important that women become just as aware of the symptoms of lung cancer as they are of breast cancer. Because the earlier they are diagnosed, the more chance they have of being cured,” she says.  "I would urge anyone with a persistent unexplained cough or who is feeling tired and breathless to see their doctor as soon as possible. It could be the best decision they ever make."

Negativity surrounding disease
“There is low public awareness of the common signs and symptoms of the disease,” agrees Dr Jesme Fox, secretary of the Global Lung Cancer Coalition (GLCC), a coalition of lung cancer patient organizations. She refers to a GLCC IPSOS/MORI International Poll, where around one quarter of those polled could not name any symptoms associated with the disease.

“Generally lung cancer is perceived as a disease of older people, who have smoked”, Fox told Citizen News Service. On top of that much negativity surrounds the disease, with survival rates being relatively poor, and a lack in investment in research. “There is also a stigma associated with smoking, which may cause some patients to delay in seeking medical help. It should be noted that around 15% of lung cancer cases are not tobacco-related.”

Fox, too, urges anyone with new or worsening unexplained symptoms to seek medical advice to enable early diagnosis. However, for people and patients taking an active role in their care, prevention remains key. “Give up smoking or do not start”, Fox concludes.

Babs Verblackt, Citizen News Service - CNS 
4 March 2015