How To Get Lung Cancer without Smoking
Smoking cigarettes has become so associated with lung cancer, we are often bewildered when someone who does not smoke, and never did, gets lung cancer. Yet about 10 percent of people who develop lung cancer each year in the United States are nonsmokers. Here are some reasons why people get lung cancer without smoking.
Where there’s cancer, there may not be smoke
More than 228,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, according to the National Cancer Institute, and about 10 percent of them will be nonsmokers. In fact, a recent report in the American Journal of Epidemiology noted that among nonsmokers, women have higher lung cancer incidence rates than do men, and that the hormone estrogen may have a role in progression of the disease.
These and other bits of information about lung cancer can lead one to wonder, how do people get lung cancer without smoking?
- Secondhand smoke. Perhaps the most obvious risk factor for lung cancer besides smoking yourself is breathing in secondhand smoke, also known as passive smoking. If you live with a smoker and don’t smoke yourself, you have a 24 percent increased risk for developing lung cancer compared with nonsmokers not exposed to such smoke. An estimated 3,000 people in the United States die each year of lung cancer associated with passive smoking.
- Radon gas. Unlike cigarette smoke, you can’t smell radon gas, but it can still do its damage. While being a smoker and being exposed to radon gas increases your chances of developing lung cancer, radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An estimated 12 percent of lung cancer deaths in both smokers and nonsmokers are believed to be at least partially associated with exposure to radon gas. This invisible gas is emitted from the earth and typically enters homes through cracks in the foundation or openings for pipes and drains. Some radon may also be found in drinking water, especially if you have a well. You can buy radon detection test kits to check for the presence of radon in your home and if you do have radon, there are various mitigation techniques you can use to nearly eliminate it.
- Asbestos. The presence of asbestos in older homes and other buildings has been associated with the risk of developing lung cancer. When the microscopic fibers in asbestos get loose and into the air, they can be inhaled and damage the lungs. People who work with asbestos and who are nonsmokers have a fivefold greater risk of developing lung cancer unless they thoroughly protect themselves against this hazardous substance. If there is asbestos in your home in ceiling tiles, insulation, or other building materials, the EPA recommends you leave it alone if it has not been damaged or disturbed and if you are not planning on remodeling. However, if the material has been compromised or if you are planning to do some remodeling, the asbestos should be removed by a professional.
- Chemicals. Exposure to chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, and nickel can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Individuals who work in industries where these chemicals are used and where workers are not properly protected against exposure are at risk.
- Air pollution. Diesel and gas emissions from vehicles, power plants, and other industries can increase the risk of developing lung cancer. An estimated 2,000 lung cancer deaths per year may be associated with air pollution, and that percentage may be on the rise. A new study appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives evaluated the health for at least 5 years of more than 1.2 million adults in Rome as it related to their exposure to air pollutants. Researchers found that long-term exposure to both nitrogen dioxide and particulates were associated with an increase in death associated with ischemic heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and lung cancer.
- Heredity. The fact that not all smokers develop lung cancer suggests that other factors, including genetic susceptibility, have a role in the development of lung cancer. A study published in December 2012 reported that researchers had discovered three genetic areas associated with an increased risk of lung cancer among nonsmoking women. Studies also show that lung cancer is more likely to develop in both smokers and nonsmokers who have relatives who had the disease.
- Other diseases. Mayo Clinic investigators found that people who have a common genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency have twice the risk of developing lung cancer, even if they do not smoke. According to the study’s lead investigator, Ping Yang, MD, PhD, “This is a seriously underdiagnosed disorder and suggests that people who have lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) in their families should be screened for these gene carriers.”
It is possible to get lung cancer without smoking. Lung cancer is a sneaky disease, but you can take steps to reduce your risk.
Alberg AJ et al. Invited commentary: the etiology of lung cancer in men compared with women. American Journal of Epidemiology 2013 Feb 20
Cesaroni G et al. Long-term exposure to urban air pollution and mortality in a cohort of more than a million adults in Rome. Environmental Health Perspectives 2013 Mar; 121(3): 324-31
Environmental Protection Agency
Hsiung LQ et al. Genome-wide association analysis identifies new lung cancer susceptibility loci in never-smoking women in Asia. Nature Genetics 2012 Dec; 44(12): 1330-35
National Cancer Institute
Yang P et al. Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency carriers, tobacco smoke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer risk. Archives of Internal Medicine 2008; 168(10): 1097