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The silent disease that's ending women's lives

THE most shocking thing about the news that lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer does is that the former is almost entirely preventable.

Unlike breast cancer, about which we hear an awful lot more and which can strike the most clean living young woman, lung cancer in the vast majority of cases is associated with smoking.

Certainly, improvement in the treatment of breast cancer have been responsible for cutting the number of people who die from it. Services have been reorganised and revamped to make sure that women get quicker and better treatment.

Women can now get screened for breast cancer under a national programme and there is heightened public awareness about the disease.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that cancer of the lung has now overtaken breast cancer as the cancer most likely to kill Irish women.

Irish men fare much better -- cases of lung cancer and deaths from the disease fell between 1994 and 2008 but the opposite happened with women, whose rate of lung cancer is rising by 2pc a year.

And, what is particularly worrying is that the reported increase in lung cancer cases is very high in younger women.

This poses a huge challenge for those tasked with trying to improve public health. It's a task you would think would be easy -- because lung cancer, unlike many other cancers, including breast cancer, is almost entirely preventable.

A massive 90pc of lung cancer cases are directly due to smoking, and the new report from the National Cancer Registry quite rightly called for renewed efforts to tackle tobacco use.

We may feel that we have made major strides in the war against smoking, with measures such as the workplace ban.

But challenges remain.

While rates have been declining, around one quarter of people in Ireland still smoke.

A key challenge is preventing young people from getting the habit early.

Smoking rates are highest among young adults aged 25-34.

And the Department of Health-sponsored SLAN survey a few years back showed that smoking rates among girls aged 15-17 were up to 8pc higher than in boys in the same age group.


And there is a class divide when it comes to women and smoking. Women from poorer backgrounds are twice as likely to be smokers than better-off women.

So as with most health problems in Ireland, the poorer you are, the worse a lifestyle you will have and the sicker you will be.

If you are a woman on a low income you are more likely to smoke and are more likely to get lung cancer.

This is a faultline running through our society and our health services and needs to be tackled urgently.

The cancer figures published yesterday cover the period up to 1998, just before the reorganisation of cancer services.

Improvements have been made -- but there is still a long way to go.

Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com