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Women Most Fear Breast Cancer, but Heart Disease Is the Top Killer

Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Society for Women’s Health Research
July 14, 2005

Although heart disease is by far the number one killer of American women, a strong majority of women say breast cancer is the disease they fear the most, according to a new survey commissioned by the Society for Women’s Health Research in Washington, D.C.

“Women tend to fear breast cancer more than heart disease, which doesn’t make sense from a statistical standpoint because the incidence of heart disease is much greater,” Michael Remetz, M.D., an associate professor of cardiology at Yale Medical Center in New Haven, Conn., said.

Almost a quarter of the women surveyed, 22 percent, said breast cancer is the single disease they most fear. All cancer responses totaled 57 percent. Heart disease was the second most feared specific disease, with 9.7 percent of women calling it their top fear.

Women are more aware of their risk for heart disease now than in the past. The percent of women who most fear heart disease has nearly doubled since 2002, representing a growth in awareness that heart disease is not solely a disease of men.

“Increased efforts by the Society for Women’s Health Research and other women’s health groups to raise awareness of heart disease in women, in particular through the Red Dress national awareness campaign, have definitely paid off,” Sherry Marts, Ph.D., the Society’s vice president of scientific affairs, said.

The survey shows that diseases women most fear do not match up with the ones most likely to kill them. Heart disease was responsible for 28.6 percent of all deaths in U.S. women in 2002, the last year for which complete data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All cancers combined, however, represented only 21.6 percent of women’s deaths that year. Breast cancer was responsible for less than four percent of all deaths.

“It’s all perception,” Remetz said. “Heart disease is viewed as more of a chronic process that people can live with. They may be fearful of heart attacks, but many view chronic illness as something that will not kill them immediately.”

The word cancer usually evokes fear in most people and advocacy groups have made marked efforts to increase public consciousness.

“Breast cancer organizations have been very successful in raising awareness,” Marts explained. “It is the most common cancer diagnosis among women. However, advances in treatment have increased survival rates dramatically, so it is no longer the leading cancer killer of women in the U.S. That distinction belongs to lung cancer.”

“It may also be an issue of control,” Remetz said. “Breast cancer has a strong, emotional component. Breast cancer can involve mutilating surgery but with heart disease, doctors can use medications, angiography and stents to prevent further disease. People feel that they can beat it.”

Lung cancer ranked seventh among women's greatest health fears, even though it claims more female lives when compared with breast cancer. In 2002, over 67,000 U.S. women died of lung cancer, while 41,500 died of breast cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer for both men and women in the United States. Although the number of cases seems to be decreasing among men, it continues to rise among women, according to the American Lung Association.

Women need to be aware of their risk for different diseases. “We need continued public education, as well as improved understanding among health care providers, about how diseases such as heart disease and lung cancer affect women,” Marts cautioned. “Women and men are affected differently by a wide range of conditions. It is important to pay attention to your individual risk factors and be aware of which diseases are on the rise. Knowing their symptoms and the available tools for prevention and treatment are keys to maintaining good health.”



What Diseases Do Women Fear Most?*
Top 10 Feared Diseases 2005 2002
Cancer (unspecified) 24.0% 27.5%
Breast Cancer 22.1% 22.4%
Heart Disease 9.7% 5.3%
HIV/AIDS 9.3% 11.3%
Alzheimer’s Disease 4.6% 2.8%
Ovarian Cancer 2.7% 3.1%
Lung Cancer 2.4% 2.3%
Diabetes 2.4% 2.2%
Colon Cancer 1.6% 1.8%
Stroke 1.2% 0.4%

*1,005 adult (aged 18 and older) U.S. women surveyed. Results weighted for age, income, region, education, race and size of metropolitan area where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population. Conducted by telephone June 22-29, 2005, by International Communications Research (ICR) of Media, Pa., for the Society for Women’s Health Research, the survey has a 95 percent confidence level. The 2002 survey was conducted in the same manner by ICR, June 19-25, 2002, included 1019 adult women and had the same confidence level.Notes: Heart disease includes heart attack, hypertension, other heart-related disease except stroke.

All cancer responses combined totaled 57.1 percent in 2005 and 60.4 percent in 2002.

Leading Causes of Death in U.S. Women - 2002**
1. Heart Disease 28.6%
2. Cancer 21.6%
3. Stroke 8.0%
4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases 5.2%
5. Alzheimer's disease 3.4%
6. Diabetes 3.1%
7. Unintentional injuries 3.0%
8. Influenza and pneumonia 3.0%
9. Kidney disease 1.7%
10. Septicemia 1.5%
**From the U.S. Centers For Disease Control’s Office of Women’s Health: www.cdc.gov/od/spotlight/nwhw/lcod.htm and www.cdc.gov/od/spotlight/nwhw/lcod/02all.pdf

July 14, 2005 Society for Women's Health Research


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