Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Nonsmokers can get lung cancer too

blog nonsmokers lung cancer

It’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month and did you know that nonsmokers can get lung cancer too?

One misconception about lung cancer is that you have to smoke to get it, yet anyone can be diagnosed with the disease. While cigarette smoking remains the number one risk factor for lung cancer, up to 15 percent of people who develop lung cancer have never smoked.

Dr. David Visco, pulmonologist at CTCA in Philadelphia, says: “Most everyone who smokes knows the risk, but many of my patients who are nonsmokers are very angry. They are people who take care of themselves, who exercise. They don’t understand why this happened to them.”

So what causes lung cancer in nonsmokers? The American Lung Association reports that nonsmokers who are exposed to tobacco smoke at home or at work have a 20 to 30 percent greater chance of developing lung cancer.

“Many of the nonsmokers I’ve seen who develop lung cancer have been exposed to secondhand smoke their whole life. They may come from a family of smokers, and they don’t realize the risk of secondhand smoke,” says Dr. Visco.

Other causes of lung cancer in nonsmokers include:

  • Radon gas – Exposure to high levels of this invisible, odorless gas found in some homes is the second leading cause of lung cancer, accounting for 10 percent of lung cancer cases. (ALA)
  • Other exposures – Exposure to asbestos and other chemicals, as well as air pollution, can increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer.
  • Genetic predisposition – Individuals with an immediate family member who has or had lung cancer (and who is or was a nonsmoker) may be more likely to develop the disease.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer, with about 373,489 Americans living with the disease. It is also the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States, claiming more than 160,000 lives each year. That’s more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

According to Dr. Visco, there will always be people who don’t smoke and get lung cancer, just as there will be people who smoke and never get the disease. The upside for nonsmokers: “The good thing is by not smoking, you are probably going to tolerate treatments better, maintain your strength, and battle cancer with better lung function,” he says.

Ultimately, it goes without saying that no one deserves to get cancer. Smokers are not to blame for their disease any more than others who make lifestyle choices that can increase cancer risk.

And for smokers who develop lung cancer, it’s never too late to quit. The American Cancer Society reports that as early as two weeks after quitting smoking, your lung function improves. Read about the Tobacco Cessation Program at our hospital near Phoenix.