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Lung cancer rates have historically been higher among men than woman, but new research reveals that trend has flipped in younger Americans.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows for the first time, women—especially white and Hispanic women—are more likely to get lung cancer than men.

Researchers analyzed all cases of invasive lung cancer in people ages 30 to 54 from 1995 through 2014. They found lung cancer rates have fallen for both men and women, but the drop has been steeper for men. The data shows women under 50 are now at the greatest risk of having lung cancer. 

Dr. Tawee Tanvetyanon, associate member of Moffitt's Thoracic Oncology Department

“This finding is interesting because the average age of diagnosis of lung cancer is 70 years old and because it goes against the stereotypical observation that lung cancer happens more frequently in men,” said Dr. Tawee Tanvetyanon, an oncologist in Moffitt’s Thoracic Department. “We know that men tend to smoke more than women and that smoking is a key risk factor that causes lung cancer. However, sometimes lung cancer just occurs anyway, regardless of smoking. There tends to be less contribution from smoking for younger people with lung cancer.”

Roughly 20 percent of women who get lung cancer are non-smokers, like Moffitt patient Alexandra Drouhard.

In the fall of 2017, 30-year-old Drouhard went to the emergency room with persistent coughing and rib pain. Doctors misdiagnosed her with stage 4 breast cancer and started her on emergency chemotherapy.

“I was dying. I could barely walk,” said Drouhard. “We had come to accept that I would no longer be with us by February or March.”

Fortunately, Drouhard found Moffitt, where doctors told her she actually had a type of lung cancer called ALK-positive lung cancer and are treating her with an inhibitor medication. She says she’s now back to her normal life as a working mom.

Tanvetyanon says young lung cancer tends to be a unique subtype, which sometimes may be more treatable with better prognosis. He says lung cancer is still unlikely to happen in the younger age group and there is no need for younger females to panic or take extra precautions.

Drouhard offers this advice for other young women: pay attention to suspicious symptoms like coughing or trouble breathing and always get a second opinion.