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Why Lung Cancer Isn’t Just a Smoker’s Disease


Lung cancer is often associated only with smokers. The truth is, this disease can affect anyone. According to the American Cancer Society1, 20% of people diagnosed with Lung cancer each year have never smoked.

 It cannot be overstated that cigarette smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, due to inhalation of nicotine and other highly addictive chemicals, including known carcinogens. And yet, thousands of people are stricken with lung cancer every year who never smoked a cigarette. Below, we will explore reasons why nonsmokers sometimes develop lung cancer.

Risk Factors

While medical research has yet to identify what causes the disease, several risk factors have been identified. Knowing what puts you at risk, apart from being a smoker, is an important part of preventing lung cancer.

Radon Gas

According to the EPA, radon is the number-one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, responsible for approximately 21,000 deaths each year.3 Radon, a naturally occurring gas, exists in the outdoors in harmless amounts. It’s prevalent in soil containing natural uranium deposits, as it is a byproduct of the breakdown of uranium. This invisible and odorless gas can become cancer-causing when it accumulates and becomes concentrated.

If a home is built on soil containing these uranium deposits, radon gas can permeate basement floors and walls, becoming trapped on these lower floors. Long-term exposure to radon can cause lung cancer.

Secondhand Smoke

While smoking cigarettes is proven to be addictive and harmful to the body, breathing in secondhand smoke causes nearly 7,000 deaths each year, according to the American Cancer Society.4Chemicals contained in all tobacco smoke are dangerous to inhale, even indirectly. The risk for inhaling secondhand smoke has been reduced today, thanks to the laws developed to prohibit smoking in public spaces.

Carcinogens in the Workplace

Despite the efforts of industry and government to protect workers against exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, dangerous chemicals like those found in diesel exhaust and asbestos are still present in warehouses, offices, and other workspaces.

Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollutants

Another risk factor is exposure to air pollution. Improper ventilation in the workplace or in the home can mean that dangerous chemicals and other substances become concentrated indoors. Outdoors, the air can become polluted by vehicle exhaust and become trapped when smog is present.


Medical researchers and primary physicians have identified how genes mutate to cause cancer. This risk factor for developing lung cancer reveals that certain genes may mutate more aggressively than others. However, unlike with other cancers such as breast cancer, medical research hasn’t been able to identify lung cancer as an inheritable disease, although it is more likely to occur in individuals whose children, parents, or siblings have developed it.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation, which is considered a safe and effective medical treatment for some cancers, can cause lung cancer in survivors who received radiation to their chest. This risk factor is highest for women treated for Hodgkin’s disease and those exposed to radiation following a mastectomy.


Although medical research has not yet been able to definitively link specific foods to lung cancer, several studies have shown that increased fruit and vegetable intake does lower lung cancer risk, as does reducing consumption of foods which cause inflammation and acidity in the body, such as processed meats.

cancer prevention sign

Lowering Your Risk

Lowering your risk of developing cancer means reducing your exposure to cancer-causing agents wherever possible. For smokers, quitting smoking is the most effective step to take to instantly reduce carcinogen exposure. Radon gas exposure can be reduced by first testing for its presence with a home kit, and then sealing any entry points through cracks in basement windows, walls, and floors before retesting.

Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke wherever possible can reduce your risk and, in the workplace, it’s important to avoid spending long periods of time in areas where high concentrations of diesel fuel and other pollutants are present. If possible, open windows to ensure proper ventilation throughout the workplace. You may also be able to complete your work away from the office.

It may be beneficial to talk to your family practitioner about dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your risk of developing cancer. Today, far more is known about foods and their health benefits than at any other point in history.

Exercise is another incredibly beneficial way to lower your cancer risk. Exercising can help to strengthen your immune system, making it better equipped to fight the development of persistent diseases like cancer. Other risk factors for cancer, including obesity, can also be reduced as the result of losing weight through exercise.

Types of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is classified according to the appearance of lung cancer cells when viewed under a microscope. The two main types of lung cancer are small cell and non-small cell. Small cell lung cancer is less common than its non-small cell counterpart, and it occurs almost exclusively in heavy smokers. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) describes several cancers that behave in similar ways. Some of these cancers include large cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.


Cancer severity is classified by stages from 0 to 4. In NSCLC, the “Occult” stage, tumors cannot be seen in biopsies or through imaging; they can only be seen in mucus coughed up from the lungs. In stage 1, cancer is visible in lung tissue but not in the lymph nodes. Stage 2 sees cancer spreading to the lymph nodes near the lungs. In stage 3, the disease spreads further into the lymph nodes and further into the chest. In stage 4, cancer is widespread in the body, affecting the liver, bones, brain, and other areas.

doctor talking to patient

Symptoms of Lung Cancer

The symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers don’t usually manifest when the cancer is in its early. Rather, they tend to appear in advanced stages of the disease making early diagnosis difficult. Symptoms of lung cancer can include, but may not be limited to, the following. All of these can be persistent and worrisome; as a result, any of these symptoms warrant a call to your doctor:

  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Bone pain
  • Coughing up any amount of blood, no matter how small
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss without diet changes or exercise
  • Development of a cough that doesn’t go away


The prognosis for those with lung cancer depends on many factors, including the stage at which they were first diagnosed. The earlier the stage at which cancer is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated. Some treatments may be less risky for the development or worsening of cancer than others, which is another factor affecting prognosis. The overall physical health of patients is yet another factor, as some diseases can make it more complicated to treat lung cancer.

Learn About Your Treatment Options

When it comes to lung cancer, finding the best treatment for your unique case is the most important decision you will make. Crystal Run Healthcare’s team of primary health care practitioners and cancer treatment specialists (or medical oncologists) consult with you on available medical treatment options that best suit your needs. Our community cancer care facility was one of the first to be certified by the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative, meeting its 24 measures for cancer care and 17 specific standards for chemotherapy safety. Call 1-845-703-6999 or go online to find an oncologist near you.