"The take-home message from this study is that women are more susceptible to lung cancer than men," says TIME medical writer Christine Gorman. These results, warns Gorman, should not be interpreted as a green light for women to go ahead and light up, figuring that genetics are predetermined and that resistance is therefore futile. "While we can't do anything about our genes, we can determine whether we smoke or not," Gorman says. "And although this gene is active in women who don't smoke, especially relative to nonsmoking men, it's even more active in women who do." And while a woman's risk for lung cancer declines steadily for years after she quits smoking, this study underscores the risk of picking up the habit for any length of time: Women tend to develop lung cancer at alarming rates even after minimal exposure to cigarette smoke.
Medical research has been playing a game of catch-up in recent years, scrambling to overcome a legacy of considering only the male physiology in tests and studies. Now, leafing through the growing pile of papers addressing women's health issues, it looks like no news might have been better. The outlook for female patients is grim on multiple medical fronts: Women are contracting AIDS at higher rates than men, they are suffering from myriad heart problems, and they seem to be more prone to lung cancer. A study released Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds that a gene thought to cause lung cancer is active in more women than men. Researchers speculate that this could explain why women smokers are more than twice as likely to develop lung cancer than their male smoking counterparts.