Speaking Out: Understanding the Rise of Lung Cancer in Women


A researcher discusses the puzzling rise in lung cancer among young women in the United States.

In recent years, the lung cancer community has seen an uptick in cases involving young women who have never smoked. No one knows the reason for this surprising and alarming turn.

In an interview with CURE®, Andrew Ciupek, who holds a Doctor of Philosophy in cancer biology and serves as clinical research manager at GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, discussed the trend and ways in which research needs to improve to better understand the situation.

CURE®: Is there any insight as to why more women are receiving lung cancer diagnoses?

Ciupek: We don’t fully understand why yet. Since the 1960s, there have been increasing rates of lung cancer in women compared with men, particularly in younger, never-smoking women, so the lung cancer research community started to explore this.

For instance, in 2018, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that noted an increasing number of lung cancer cases in these women, but the authors also noted that they don’t really think it’s due to differences in smoking rates.

And that’s because since the 1960s, smoking rates of men and women in the United States have been pretty similar. However, we know there are a lot of other risk factors that contribute to it. Some are environmental exposures, such as radon, or occupational exposures, but there could also be certain genetic predispositions among women; however, we don’t really know which one contributes to this rise. We need a lot more research in this area.

Why is this happening in never smokers?

Not everyone knows that 20% of all lung cancer cases are diagnosed in people who have never smoked. Although we mention this current trend in young, never-smoking women, understanding the causes of this trend can lead to better understanding of why never smokers in general get lung cancer and how better to help them if they do.

That’s why it’s so important to have research in this area: It’s going to have wide implications beyond just this one group.

What can more research tell us?

It will show us what is behind this trend and if there is anything that we can do about it.

As we get more research results back, we may come up with other ways to treat patients with lung cancer. Is there something different, perhaps the biology, in younger, never-smoking women? We also may develop better prevention strategies once we understand what’s contributing to this higher incidence rate, such as the best ways to educate young never smokers.

This will eventually require a higher-level effort and a big coordination. ... We need to look at it from a national level and make it a priority in the country. That’s why we support a piece of legislation called the Women and Lung Cancer Research and Preventive Services Act, which is asking the federal government to make it a priority.

We’re asking people who have been affected by lung cancer who care about the cause to ask members of Congress to support this act as it is being considered.