Understanding Lung Cancer Risks for Non-Smokers
- A wife and mother of two from Oklahoma is battling lung cancer for the fourth time even though she has never smoked cigarettes.
- According to the CDC, about 10% to 20% of lung cancers, or 20,000 to 40,000 lung cancers each year, happen in people who never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.
- There are a handful of environmental factors that can cause the disease, such as exposure to radon gas, breathing in secondhand smoke, exposure to air pollution, or if you have a family history of lung cancer.
“In 2017, I began having shortness of breath and I felt like maybe it was asthma,” Ashley Stringer tells FOX 26 News in Houston, Texas, where she is undergoing treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center.Read More
Stringer says it was a “complete surprise” to her that she had lung cancer for one reason: she has no history of smoking.
“I had surgery to remove half of my left lung and then the cancer returned on two different occasions. I’ve had radiation to treat it since then,” Stringer says, adding that her cancer has recently returned for a fourth time.
This young wife and mother is now making it her mission to educate people that they too can get lung cancer, even if they have never smoked.
“There’s lots of research ongoing and a lot of hope in the future. And I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to be here for as long as I can, to be there and be their mom,” she says of her children. “They understand on a certain level, and I think they’ve accepted it and have grown to appreciate certain things maybe more than other children would. So it’s bittersweet.”
Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10% to 20% of lung cancers, or 20,000 to 40,000 lung cancers each year, happen in people who never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime — people just like Stringer.
The tobacco in cigarettes is a carcinogen that causes mutations in lung cells and enables the growth of cancer. In fact, about 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, according to the American Cancer Society. Despite this, there are still a handful of other environmental factors that can cause the disease.
The leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to radon gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It accounts for about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. But because radon cannot be seen or smelled, the only way to know whether it is accumulating in your home is to test for it.
Another big cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is simply breathing in secondhand smoke. That amounts to around 7,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. Exposure to other harmful chemicals like asbestos may also cause lung cancer. Asbestos was commonly used for insulation, roofing and in various paints and plastics before it was banned by the EPA in 1989.
People may also be at a higher risk of developing lung cancer if they are constantly exposed to air pollution, or if they have a family history of lung cancer. New research also suggests that people infected with HIV have a higher risk of developing lung cancer compared to the general population. HIV weakens the immune system and reduces the body’s ability to fight off other viral infections that may cause various cancers.
There are several types of surgery available for lung cancer, and the decision about which is best for you is based largely on the location of your cancer, its size and whether it has started to spread.
For example, a wedge resection is an option if your tumor is small and located on the outside of the lung. During this procedure, your surgeon removes a piece of the lung (in the shape of a wedge) and lung function is not affected.
In contrast, a lobectomy, or a segmentectomy, involves the removal of a certain segment of the lung (a lobe). During a pneumonectomy, however, the entire lung is removed. (Based on Stringer’s description of her surgery, it is believed she had a lobectomy procedure.)
There are several different ways to do lung cancer surgery. The standard operation used to be open surgery with a big incision in the chest and then spreading apart the ribs. But because of the pain after the operation and the lengthy recovery time, doctors are increasingly using less invasive operations including minimally-invasive video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, also known as VATS, and robotic techniques.
This can be a lot to take in, but remember that your surgeon will go over all of these options with you when planning your treatment.
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff