February 24, 2013 10:21 am

Dr. Kris Gast ~ Ask the Pros

Posted in: Ask the Pros

Radiation Oncologist at Fort Smith Radiation OncologyQ: How can someone who has never smoked get lung cancer?

A: When discussing lung cancer, doctors tend to lump smokers and non-smokers together, but lung cancer in non-smokers is really a different disease with, obviously, different causes.  The incidences of lung cancer in non-smokers are significant, making up 10-15% of lung cancers, with two-thirds of these found in women.

Besides smoking, what else can cause lung cancer? Many of the other causes are environmental.  In fact, the number one suspected cause of lung cancer, other than smoking, is radon gas in the homes.  Other environmental causes include second-hand smoke, which accounts for 3000 lung cancer cases a year; fumes from wok cooking, thought to be a cause of lung cancer in Asian countries; and asbestos exposure, which can cause a special type of lung cancer called mesothelioma.  Other than environmental causes, genetics often play a role.  Having a first-degree family member (parent, sibling, or child) with lung cancer roughly doubles the risk.  Having a second-degree relative (aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew) with lung cancer raises the risk by around 30 percent.

Currently, whether smokers or non-smokers, lung cancer patients are treated the same.   In the future, treatments could become more specialized based on the fact that these cancers are different on a genetic level. Until then, the most important things to do to lower the risk of lung cancer as a non-smoker are to check homes for radon and avoid secondhand smoke.

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