But while breast cancer maintains a deadly toll, the nation's female population has more to fear from another, less conspicuous killer: Lung cancer. While breast cancer will claim roughly 42,000 lives this year, lung cancer will kill 65,000 women.
And now, in a macabre twist on equal opportunity, a new study out of the U.S. Surgeon General's office shows women's death rates from smoking-related cancer have drawn nearly even with men's. That's something of an epidemiological sea change back in 1965, only two out of 10 Americans who died from smoking were women, and now that number is four in 10. The numbers of men and women who smoke mirror the shift: In 1964, 52 percent of men and 34 percent of women smoked. Today, 26 percent of men and 22 percent of women light up.
And the gap continues to narrow: Related studies show that teenage girls are smoking more now than they have in 15 years, unlike their male peers, who are smoking less.
The increase seems awfully counterintuitive: Americans know that smoking is dangerous, that it can kill us. We wade through publicly financed warnings every time we pick up a magazine or drive down the highways. So why are so many women still puffing away?
Health officials have myriad theories, but few real answers. Some blame the leviathan that is America's tobacco industry, whose advertising and marketing resources make any public health efforts pale in comparison. Others blame women's biological susceptibility to nicotine's addictive qualities, which may make it more difficult for a woman to quit smoking than a man. Still others point to a culture obsessed with thinness, even at the expense of health; women who try to quit smoking often gain weight as a result of both increased eating and a diminished metabolism.
Whatever the causes, anti-smoking advocates, including HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and Surgeon General David Satcher, pledge to refocus energy and resources on fighting what Satcher terms "the epidemic" of female smoking and smoking deaths. Women's health organizations won't be far behind: This is one arena, after all, where women don't want to give men a run for their money.