The Union Recorder

December 3, 2013

ORMC: Why lung cancer strikes nonsmokers

The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — 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 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.

• Cancer-causing agents at work. For some people, the workplace is a source of exposure to carcinogens like asbestos and diesel exhaust. Work-related exposure to such cancer-causing materials has decreased in recent years, as the government and industry have taken steps to help protect workers. But the dangers are still present, and if you work around these agents, you should be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.

• Air pollution. While it’s long been known that both indoor and outdoor air pollution contribute to lung cancer, a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine measured the fine particulate matter that contributes to lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers. Using data from a large American Cancer Society database, the researchers concluded that even tiny amounts of increased carcinogens in air pollution significantly increased the risk.

•Gene mutations. Researchers are learning more and more about what causes cells to become cancerous, and how lung cancer cells differ between nonsmokers and smokers. For example, an article published in Clinical Cancer Research explains that a particular kind of gene mutation is much more common in lung cancer in nonsmokers than smokers. This mutation activates a gene that normally helps cells grow and divide. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on constantly, so the lung cancer cells grow faster. Knowing what causes the cell changes has helped researchers develop targeted therapies, drugs that specifically target these mutations.

If you do smoke, you can reduce your risk of lung cancer if you stop smoking. ORMC and the American Cancer Society offer FREE smoking cessation classes in the Education Center at ORMC’s Park Tower. The next 4-class series will be offered in January 2014. Please call 478-454-3705 for exact dates and times.

Source:  American Cancer Society