Lung cancer has traditionally been an overwhelmingly male disease, but growing numbers of women are being diagnosed with what is the UK's biggest cancer killer. The trend has alarmed senior doctors, who are urging female smokers to quit and calling on the NHS to do more to warn women of the dangers of taking up the habit.
Alexander Ives and Dr Julia Verne, of the NHS's South West Public Health Observatory, used data from the UK Association of Cancer Registries to identify women in England diagnosed with the disease between 1985 and 2006. They found that: "Lung cancer incidence for females increased significantly from 1985-87 (32.3 per 100,000) to 2004-06 (35.4 per 100,000)", a 10% rise. Most recent figures give the rate for men in England as 60 per 100,000.
There is great variation between regions. For example, it is expected that by 2030 lung cancer rates in the south-west will be similar among men and women. That is partly because in the last 20 years the disease has soared by 30% among females from poor backgrounds in the region but remained steady among better-off women.
"There's a problem here with women," said Dr Paul Beckett, chair of the British Thoracic Society's lung cancer and mesothelioma specialist advisory group. "Women need to take on board that lung cancer is not a disease of men, it's a disease of smokers, and either not take up smoking in the first place or quit cigarettes as a matter of urgency."
Lung cancer claims more Britons' lives than any other form of the disease. Every day about 108 people are diagnosed with it, and of those 95 die. In the 1950s men diagnosed with lung cancer outnumbered women by six to one.
Data released last week by the Office of National Statistics showed that while heart and circulatory problems claim more men than anything else, cancers are now the commonest cause of death in women, accounting for 159 deaths per 100,000 annually. The historic popularity of smoking in Scotland means it has the UK's highest rates of lung cancer, while cancer generally claims 181 lives per 100,000 women north of the border.
Other research to be unveiled at the thoracic society's winter conference this week will show that there is still a postcode lottery deciding which patients receive radiation or chemotherapy treatment, or undergo surgery.
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