Why Are More Millennial Women Getting Lung Cancer?

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
An illustration of multicolored lungs

New studies show more young women between the ages of 30 to 49 are being diagnosed with lung cancer.  

Historically, lung cancer diagnosis rates for men have been significantly higher than the rates for women, but we’re starting to see that change. Over the last 42 years, men have seen a 36% decrease in new diagnoses, whereas women have seen an 84% increase, with most cases linked to younger women. 

Despite the increased diagnoses in younger women, there are far fewer cases of lung cancer across the board for all genders.   

But if fewer people are getting lung cancer, why are rates in women under 50 rising? 

The short answer: there’s no real answer. There are many theories as to why lung cancer rates aren’t declining as quickly in women as they are in men, but no concrete understanding.  

And yes, it’s true — you can still get lung cancer even if you’ve never smoked before in your life.  

Dr. John Kang, a radiation oncologist who practices at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy and UW Medical Center – Montlake, highlights that almost all cancers have a bad luck component to them.  

“Unfortunately, this means that even nonsmokers will develop lung cancer,” says Kang. “The number of people smoking is decreasing, so even if the rate of nonsmokers who develop lung cancer is constant, this would lead to proportionately more nonsmokers who develop lung cancer.” 

So, when it comes to lung cancer, what should millennial women look for?  

What are lung cancer symptoms and causes? 

Kang says it’s not always clear what can cause someone’s lung cancer, but there are several known factors that can increase the chance of developing the disease. This includes a history of smoking — a dominant factor — or environmental factors such as exposure to asbestos and radon.  

Some symptoms of lung cancer include: 

  • Chest pain 
  • Coughing up blood or a cough that doesn’t go away 
  • Wheezing 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss without trying 

Not everyone who has lung cancer experiences early symptoms, and it’s also important to remember that even if you have one of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you have lung cancer. Many other viruses, infections or diseases can cause these symptoms, which is why it’s crucial to go to the doctor before starting to panic.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Kang explains that lung cancer is diagnosed either at an early stage through screening — usually for high-risk patients — or at a later stage when symptoms caused by the lung cancer develop. 

“There are two categories of lung cancer that have separate treatment recommendations,” says Kang. “One is called non-small cell lung cancer, which makes up about 80% of lung cancer patients, and the rest is small cell lung cancer. Within non-small cell lung cancer, the subtypes of cancers include adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma, whose treatments are similar.” 

The most common type of lung cancer found in younger women is adenocarcinoma, which is typically found on the outer parts of the lung.

How can people protect their lungs?

To start — if you’re a smoker, do your best to stop. It’s a hard habit to break, but Kang says that smoking cessation is by far the greatest way to prevent lung cancer. The same goes for your environment; try to limit the time you spend in spaces where you’d be exposed to second-hand smoke. 

Next, test your home for radon. It’s a naturally occurring radioactive gas that’s not so good when the exposure is at large amounts inside your home. Kang says this is especially important if you have a basement or live in a high-risk area.  

Finally, make sure you’re taking care of the basics and keeping your lungs in tip-top shape — exercise regularly (yes, really), get regular check-ups with your doctor and if you catch a cold or respiratory infection, make sure to go to the doctor to get treatment so it doesn’t turn serious. 

Is there cause for worry?

Don’t let this scare you; just remember to keep the information in mind as you think about how you can stay healthy. In the end, cancer is not your fault — and if it becomes a reality for you, know it’s possible to lean on your doctors, friends and family to fight through it.