updated 5/16/2006 4:07:07 PM ET 2006-05-16T20:07:07

Lung cancer isn’t common in people who never smoked. But when they do get it, doctors have long thought women were more likely to die than men. New research suggests the opposite.

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Analyzing medical records of nearly 1 million people, American Cancer Society researchers reported Tuesday that men who never used cigarettes actually had slightly higher death rates from lung cancer than women who never puffed.

“The conventional wisdom ... is wrong,” concluded Dr. Michael Thun, lead author of the report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

However, more black women who had never smoked died of lung cancer than their white counterparts.

Lung cancer is the nation’s, and world’s, most common and deadliest malignancy. More than 174,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year, and 162,400 will die. Smoking cigarettes is the main cause.

But about 15,000 of the deaths will occur in people who never used cigarettes. Other known causes: breathing secondhand smoke; exposure to radon and asbestos; smoking other tobacco products; and high-dose radiation.

The gender issue made headlines this spring when lung cancer claimed lifelong nonsmoker Dana Reeve, widow of “Superman” star Christopher Reeve.

Thun analyzed two cancer-prevention studies that tracked more than 940,000 Americans’ health for 20 years.

Among never-smokers, the death rate from lung cancer per 100,000 people was 17.1 for men and 14.7 for women in the most recent of the two studies; the earlier study showed similar rates.

Why the gender confusion?

Lung cancer usually strikes older people, and there are far more women than men over age 60 who have never smoked — 16.2 million such women vs. just 6.4 million men. So doctors are caring for more female never-smokers, even though they’re not at higher risk, Thun said.

But death rates were higher for black women, 21.3, than for white women, 14.4, he found. Black men died more frequently, too, but that difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Thun called for more research to examine if the racial disparity means black never-smokers are truly more vulnerable to lung cancer, or reflects poorer health care.

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