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Eliminating smoking would save many lives

The month of October saw a highly successful campaign to raise awareness of the threat to women imposed by breast cancer. Although we have made impressive inroads against breast cancer, we need to identify means of preventing it, and better means of diminishing the human suffering and death it exacts. We are increasingly able to diminish breast cancer’s lethality; we continue to struggle in our search for means to prevent it. Breast examination, whether by mammography or physical examination, makes breast cancer more treatable; it does not prevent breast cancer.

Women in Western New York and the rest of the United States are more likely to develop breast than lung cancer. But breast cancer can be successfully treated; lung cancer is highly lethal. Thus, more women die each year of lung than of breast cancer; last year in Western New York, lung cancer killed 189 women, while breast cancer killed 160.

Lung cancer would be one of the rarest of cancers but for cigarette smoking. The few cases that occur among nonsmoking women usually afflict women who are exposed to secondhand smoke. Other frequently lethal cancers induced by smoking include those of the bladder, colon, head and neck, esophagus and kidney. It is increasingly clear that cancer patients who smoke have a poorer prognosis than nonsmoking patients.

We do, to be sure, need to do a better job of dealing with breast cancer. But the most important single cause of early death among women in our society is cigarette smoking. Eliminating smoking would save more deaths than the discovery of even highly effective means of preventing and treating breast cancer.

James R. Marshall

Senior Vice President, Cancer

Prevention and Population Science

Roswell Park Cancer Institute