Most people know that smoking causes cancer, but may not realize how many nonsmokers get lung cancer, too. Every year, about 16,000 to 24,000 Americans die of lung cancer, even though they have never smoked. In fact, if lung cancer in nonsmokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States.
Unfortunately, a perception that patients contributed to their own illness by smoking harms both smokers and nonsmokers with lung cancer. Lung cancer expert Joan H. Schiller, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, co-authored a study measuring public attitudes about lung cancer. The study found that 70 percent of participants had a negative attitude about lung cancer. By comparison, only 22 percent had a negative attitude about breast cancer.
Even so, researchers have made a lot of progress over the past decade in understanding what causes lung cancer in nonsmokers and how to treat it.
• Radon gas. The leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is exposure to radon gas. It accounts for about 20,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Studies have found that the risk of lung cancer is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house. Because radon gas can’t be seen or smelled, the only way to know whether it’s a problem in your home is to test for it. Visit http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html#howdoes to learn how to test your home for radon easily and inexpensively, as well as what to do if your levels are too high.
• Secondhand smoke. Each year, an estimated 3,400 nonsmoking adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke. Laws that ban smoking in public places have helped to reduce this danger. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action NetworkSM , the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, is working to expand and strengthen these laws to further protect both smokers and nonsmokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke.