Dana Reeve - Female Non-Smokers and Lung canc

Dana Reeve - Female Non-Smokers and Lung canc

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Female Non-Smokers Suffer Disproportionately



The death of Dana Reeve on Monday serves as a reminder of one of lung canc's tragic truths.

"If there was no smoking, there would still be lung canc," says University of Pittsburgh lung canc researcher Jill Siegfried.  In fact, she says, even if no American ever smoked, lung canc would still be the fourth-most-commonly diagnosed malignancy in the USA.

And 85% of non-smokers diagnosed with lung canc -- including, by all accounts, Reeve -- are women, Siegfried says.  One out of five women with lung canc never smoked, compared with one out of 10 men with lung canc.

In general, fewer women than men smoke, but that doesn't fully explain why lung canc patients who never smoked are overwhelmingly female, Siegfried says.

Although lung canc kills about 15,000 female non-smokers in the USA each year, "when many people, both doctors and non-doctors, think about lung canc, the face they see is an older, smoking man," says Joan Schiller, a lung canc doctor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Frustrated with the lack of attention to women with lung canc, Schiller founded Women Against Lung canc four years ago; she is the organization's president.

Schiller notes that women represent about 40% of lung canc patients, "and nobody talks about it or wants to talk about it."

Researchers have only recently begun investigating why women who have never smoked are more likely to develop lung canc than their male counterparts.  Studies of mice suggest that estrogen may play a role, Schiller says.

About 95% of lung cancs in both sexes have estrogen receptors, Siegfried says.  She and Schiller are involved in research looking at whether Faslodex, an anti-estrogen drug used to treat metastatic breast cancs that contain estrogen receptors, might be effective against metastatic lung cancs in women.

Genetics also might play a role in lung canc risk.  Just months before Reeve was diagnosed, her mother died of ovarian canc.  Siegfried says her research has found a disproportionate number of breast and ovarian cancs among the relatives of women with lung canc.

Lung canc itself appears to run in the Scarangello family.  Joan Scarangello McNeive never smoked, but she died in 2001 at age 47, just nine months after she was diagnosed with lung canc.  McNeive died 20 years after her mother, who also never smoked, died at age 50, also just nine months after being diagnosed with lung canc.

When McNeive was diagnosed, her family realized that "nothing had changed in 20 years," says her brother's wife, Roxanne Donovan, a founding board member of Joan's Legacy, a New York-based non-profit group that has awarded $1.3 million for lung canc research.

"There was nothing they could do for Joan," Donovan says.  "There was nothing they could do for her mother."

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