The symptoms of lung cancer in women are virtually the same as those in men. Still, some differences can affect the outlook and treatment options for women with lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer. Women are more likely than men to develop lung cancers that are unrelated to smoking.

Everyone shares the same risk factors for developing lung cancer, regardless of sex. This is especially true of chronic exposure to tobacco smoke, which is responsible for 85% of lung cancer diagnoses overall.

Language matters

We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with how your body responds to this disease. Your doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment.

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Symptoms of lung cancer in women are similar to those experienced in men. These can include:

However, men and women are more likely to develop different forms of lung cancer, which can cause different symptoms.

Men are more likely to develop lung cancers that affect the main airways in the lungs. They may have more symptoms such as coughing and breathing difficulty.

Women who develop cancers in other parts of the lungs may instead experience early symptoms such as fatigue and back or shoulder pain.

A few rare but related conditions can also occur, though some are more common in men than women. Some examples follow.

Horner’s syndrome

Horner’s syndrome causes symptoms in your face, most commonly the eyes. It’s caused by a disruption in nerve pathways from your brain to your face. The condition can be associated with some types of lung cancer tumors.

Horner’s syndrome can cause:

  • constriction of the pupil
  • drooping of your upper eyelids
  • other facial and eye symptoms

Pancoast tumors, a rare type of lung cancer, can cause Horner’s syndrome. These tumors are more likely to affect men than women.

Superior vena cava syndrome

Superior vena cava syndrome refers to symptoms that occur when the superior vena cava, a primary vein that transports blood to your heart, is blocked or compressed, and blood flow is compromised.

The most common symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • swollen face, arms, torso, or neck
  • difficulty breathing

Lung cancer tumors in your chest or lymph nodes may press on the superior vena cava, causing this compression.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Paraneoplastic syndromes are rare disorders caused by an immune system response to a tumor. They can cause symptoms such as:

  • weakness
  • loss of coordination
  • muscles cramps

Paraneoplastic syndromes are mostly seen in lung cancers that are more common in men, such as:

  • squamous cell lung cancers
  • small cell lung cancers
  • large cell carcinomas

Smoking is the biggest risk factor in developing lung cancer. This risk factor affects everyone differently. There’s no medical consensus on why women smokers are more likely than men smokers to:

  • develop small-cell lung cancer
  • have DNA damage
  • have less capacity to repair smoking damage

There’s no medical consensus on why women nonsmokers are more likely than men to:

  • develop adenocarcinoma
  • receive a diagnosis at an earlier age
  • receive a diagnosis with localized disease

Some studies have hypothesized that carcinogens may have a larger effect on women than men. More research needs to be done to confirm this.

While both men and women are susceptible to lung cancer, they’re not equally susceptible to the same types.

There are two main types of lung cancer:

Small-cell lung cancer is generally the most aggressive and rapidly progressing type.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common form of lung cancer. There are three types:

When women develop lung cancer, they’re more likely to present with adenocarcinoma than men are. On the other hand, men are more likely than women to present with squamous cell lung cancer, the most common type in smokers.

One major difference between these lung cancers is that squamous cell produces more symptoms and is easier to detect, which provides the greatest opportunity for an early diagnosis. An early diagnosis can help provide you with the best outlook.

Both hormones and genetics may play a role in the differences in lung cancer between men and women.

Examples of these potential factors for women include:

  • the effects of a genetic mutation called K-ras and estrogen on cancer cell growth
  • the timing of menopause and whether early menopause may decrease the risk of lung cancer
  • stronger DNA damage from smoking
  • how genetic mutations in epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may affect treatment effectiveness

Ultimately, much more research needs to be done to fully understand how genetics and hormones affect the likelihood and outcome of lung cancer in women.

There’s been a gradual rise in lung cancer deaths among women as opposed to a gradual leveling off among men.

The American Lung Association reports that lung cancer rates have decreased by 36% in men over the last 42 years, but the rates in women have risen by 84%.

The American Cancer Society estimates that women account for more than half of people with new lung cancer diagnoses in the United States.

Depending on the specifics of the diagnosis, the treatment for lung cancer for both women and men is usually:

The survival rates following treatment are different for women and men with lung cancer. A 2012 study found that:

  • the median survival at 1 and 2 years was significantly higher in women
  • the risk of death was 14% lower in women
  • women respond better to chemotherapy than men

This is positive news for women, but women also encounter problems that men don’t, including:

  • a higher likelihood of developing small-cell lung cancer, particularly for smokers
  • having potential genetic mutations that can make tumor growth more aggressive
  • less obvious early symptoms that can make detection more likely

What accounts for these differences?

There’s no agreement in the medical community for a direct explanation for these differences between men and women. Potential reasons include:

  • hormonal factors, such as estrogen exposure
  • age of onset for smoking, since women tend to smoke later in life
  • women are more likely to seek early treatment
  • genetic and lifestyle factors

While lung cancer is less common in women than it is in men, that gap is getting smaller. Women may be more negatively affected by the dangers of smoking. Also, certain hormonal factors may potentially aggravate and spur cancer growth.

More time, research, and advancements in medicine should add to a better understanding of the sex-linked differences in lung cancer. More treatments are being researched every day to address the overall outcome of this disease.

Speak with a doctor about your specific circumstances and symptoms.