drunkCases of lung cancer in women have reached 20,000 a year in the UK for the first time since records began, according to new Cancer Research UK statistics.

Lung cancer rates in women have increased by 22%, soaring from around 14,200 cases diagnosed around 20 years ago. Despite falling smoking rates, the number of lung cancer cases are yet to fall in women. This reflects different patterns in smoking behaviour, with men’s smoking peaking in the 1940s while women’s peaked around the 1970s.

As lung cancer cases continue to climb, much more needs to be done to tackle the poor long-term survival from this disease – more than 35,000 people die from lung cancer every year in the UK, almost 20,000 men and 16,000 women. Because of this, Cancer Research UK is focusing on lung cancer as part of its research strategy, and has already doubled its research spend on the disease over the last year.

The new areas of research include a way to study the disease once it has spread (link is external) by isolating and studying individual tumour cells carried in a patient’s blood. This is part of a growing body of lung cancer research aimed at developing blood tests to monitor and understand how it changes and becomes resistant to drugs.

Professor Caroline Dive, a lead scientist on the project from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (link is external), said: “It really is devastating to see that the number of women diagnosed with lung cancer continues to climb. We also know survival remains poor and one of the problems is that lung cancer tends to be diagnosed at a late stage when it has already spread. Cancer is very difficult to treat once it has spread around the body.

“It's very challenging to biopsy lung cancer and very hard for the patient too. The new technique we’re testing uses magnets to capture rogue cancer cells in patients’ blood and could be a more effective form of biopsy – providing vital information on the biology of the disease. And, ultimately, this could lead to better ways to treat patients.”

The new technique is being presented at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

Nell Barrie, senior science communication manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s vital that we keep on fighting against lung cancer. It’s the biggest cancer killer in the UK so the Government and the health service must work to help smokers quit by providing more stop smoking services to help people give up this deadly addiction. If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is stop. It’s also essential to invest in new techniques to improve treatment for patients. This new form of biopsy is unique because samples are taken throughout a patient’s treatment allowing researchers to understand how drug resistance develops and how tumours evolve over time.”