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Non-Smokers Develop Lung Cancer, Too

Posted by Richard E. May, Jr., MD
Holy Name Medical Partners on November 26, 2019

Richard E. May, Jr., MD, Pulmonologist, Holy Name Medical Partners

The link between smoking and lung cancer is well established, with more than 80% of cases attributed to the habit. But that means that nearly a fifth of cases afflict non-smokers, a percentage that has increased in recent years.

Most people diagnosed with lung cancer are older than age 65. In non-smokers, particularly women, the disease sometimes occurs earlier and has often progressed by the time of diagnosis.

Environmental and genetic factors both are in play when non-smokers get lung cancer. Despite marked improvements in U.S. air quality over the past two generations, there are still plenty of irritants and harmful pollutants in the environment.

The Leading Cause

Exposure to radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second-leading cause overall, responsible for more than 20,000 lung-cancer deaths annually, according to federal environmental and health agencies.

An odorless gas, radon is emitted by uranium deposits in the ground. It is harmless outdoors but can build up in the basement of homes. It is estimated that one in every 15 homes in the United States has elevated radon levels. A Citizen's Guide to Radon explains how to easily and inexpensively test your home for radon, as well as what to do if your levels are too high.

Second-hand smoke can be a big factor in lung cancer. Many strides have been made in eliminating second-hand smoke from public places but if you live with a smoker ask him or her to seek assistance to stop.

Cancer-causing agents at workplaces, such as asbestos and diesel exhaust, also are problematic. The recent news that workers fabricating stone countertops are inhaling carcinogens like silica is a case in point.

Genetics also play a role. Researchers are probing how lung cancer cells differ between smokers and non-smokers. Smokers are more likely to develop small-cell lung cancer while non-smokers are more disposed to the non-small-cell type. Understanding the genetic links and the differences can help in the development of targeted therapies to treat lung cancer.

Discuss Any Symptoms with Your Doctor

There is no lung cancer screening per se for non-smokers. Sometimes a spot on the lung is picked up on a chest x-ray for an unrelated surgery. It’s important to let your physician know if you have a family history of cancer or if you are exhibiting any of the common symptoms of lung cancer, such as persistent coughing, coughing up even a little bit of blood, wheezing, chest pain or unexpected weight loss.

If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, treatment at the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center at Holy Name may include one or more of the following methods:

  • surgery
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • targeted therapies
  • immunotherapy

Because lung cancer is often thought of as the smoker's disease, not enough attention may be paid to non-smokers exhibiting symptoms of lung cancer. More awareness is crucial for earlier diagnosis and treatment, not to mention research into the disease.

Richard E. May, Jr., MD, is dual board-certified in internal medicine and pulmonary care, practicing with Pulmonary Specialists of North Jersey, with offices in Englewood and North Bergen. Dr. May is a member of the American College of Chest Physicians.

To make an appointment with him, visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org. To learn more about diagnosing and treating lung cancer at the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center at Holy Name, visit holyname.org/lungcancer.