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Why 'non-smokers' get lung cancer

For what seemed like an eternity, smoking and lung cancer seemed to go hand in hand. Today, statistics reveal a disconcerting trend: More and more people who have never smoked are developing lung cancer. Why?

If you’ve never smoked a cigarette, you might think you’re immune to lung cancer. But, according to recent statistics, you would be wrong. While smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, recent research shows that lung cancer rates among people who have never smoked (aka non-smokers) are steadily increasing.

According to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that 10 to 15 % of lung cancers occur in people n who have never smoked, and that the incidence of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC; the most common type) among never smokers is on the rise, increasing by 8% between 1990 and 1995 and from 14 % between and 2013. In fact, up to 15% of people who die of lung cancer each year have never smoked or used any form of tobacco.

Non-smoking women have twice the risk of lung cancer than men

Women who have never smoked are more likely than men, according to statistics: Women who have never smoked are twice as likely to develop lung cancer as men. In fact, a study published in September 2020 in the journal Lung Cancer Management showed that nearly half of women diagnosed with lung cancer worldwide have never smoked, against only 15 to 20 % of men.

What explains the resurgence of cases in people n ever smoked? The explanation is complex, probably due to many factors, and not fully understood. Researchers know very little about why this is happening and why it seems to be happening at higher rates today than in the past.

Top 7 reasons why more people who have never smoked are getting lung cancer

It is very likely that many causes contribute to the increase in cases of lung cancer among non-smokers. smokers. Here are some possible reasons:

1 The number of non-smokers

The number of people who have never smoked compared to the general population is higher today than it has ever been in the last 100 years, because the smoking rates have declined to approximately 15% of the adult population. Thus, with fewer people with a history of smoking, there is a higher chance of being diagnosed with lung cancer that is not attributable to smoking.

2 Gene Mutations

People who have never smoked are more likely to have genetic mutations (changes in the DNA that makes up a gene) that contribute to the development of cancer. Many never-smoked lung cancers harbor genetic mutations known as ‘driver mutations’. They cause otherwise healthy lung cells to become cancerous. But researchers don’t know what causes these mutations to appear. Common mutations in non-smokers who develop lung cancer include abnormalities in the EGFR, ALK, ROS1, etc. genes. The good news is that there are drugs and therapies that target many of these mutations.

3 Family history

People with a family history of lung cancer have a higher risk of developing this cancer themselves. This is especially true if you have a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) who developed lung cancer before the age of 50 years.

4 Exposure to radon

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that seeps into homes from the ground. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, but the most common cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Some recent studies, such as the one published in September 2019 in Scientific Reports, have suggested that modern building construction practices have led to an increase in the amount radon levels in homes.

5 More screening

Doctors may be detecting more lung cancers in people who have never smoked, due to the increased use of screening technologies. Doctors check people for so many things that have nothing to do with lung cancer that they end up finding things by chance. Kidney stones can save a person’s life if a spot on the lung is noticed and proper diagnosis and care is followed.

6 Passive smoking

Passive smoking, i.e. the smoke inhaled by another person’s cigarette or tobacco product, is responsible for a significant number of cancers of the lung. Researchers are also interested in the impact of “tertiary smoke”. This is the film of nicotine and chemicals that can remain on walls, furniture, clothing and other surfaces.

7 Other environmental pollutants

Other environmental factors, such as exposure to air pollution, diesel engine exhaust, asbestos and arsenic, can lead to cancer of the lung in non-smokers.

How to reduce your chances of developing lung cancer?

Non-smokers can help reduce their risk lung cancer by avoiding second-hand smoke and exposure to radon or other harmful pollutants. It’s also important to see a doctor if you have early symptoms, as lung cancer in particular is a more treatable disease when caught early.

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