If you think you’re safe from lung cancer because you’ve never smoked, think again. Being a non-smoker doesn’t mean you cannot get lung cancer.
While cigarette smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, you also can get it from breathing secondhand smoke, being exposed to asbestos or radon, or having a family history of lung cancer.
Many people think lung cancer always is the result of a personal choice to smoke cigarettes, and so don’t see lung cancer patients in the same light as, say, a breast cancer patient. However, the vast majority of people who die from lung cancer quit smoking long before they received a lung cancer diagnosis.
“There’s a huge stigma associated with lung cancer because the majority of people who die from it are either smokers or former smokers,” says oncologist Nathan Pennell, MD, PhD.
“But the fact is that anyone who has lungs can be exposed to toxins and develop lung cancer, so this is a disease that should concern everyone,” Dr. Pennell says.
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One of the first questions people usually ask when they find out someone has lung cancer is, “Was he (or she) a smoker?”
“Tobacco smoke is one of the most addictive substances known to man, and addiction is a disease,” Dr. Pennell says. “Many people who smoke become addicted as teenagers. Whether you’re a smoker or not, nobody deserves to die from lung cancer.”
An under-funded area of research
More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is true for men and women.
But because of the stigma associated with lung cancer, it is difficult for researchers to get funding to try to find a cure.
“Public funding has a lot to do with politics, and public opinion doesn’t support lung cancer as it does the so-called ‘blameless cancers’ like breast cancer or prostate cancer,” Dr. Pennell says. “Those types of cancers also have a lot more survivors who can advocate for funding.”
There are not enough lung cancer survivors to demand change, Dr. Pennell says. “Those who do survive often blame themselves, so there is a smaller percentage of survivors who are willing to tell their stories,” he says.
New breakthroughs in lung cancer treatments
Despite funding difficulties, medicine has made progress in lung cancer diagnosis and treatments over the last several years. Genetic testing is one example.
“There are many different types of lung cancer. Genetic testing has helped researchers to develop therapies that target specific types of cancer cells,” Dr. Pennell says.
Immune-based therapies, in which the immune system is primed to attack tumors, also are showing potential for treating lung cancer, Dr. Pennell says. These therapies already have been approved for treating skin cancer.
Development of screening tools such as CT scans help with early identification of lung cancer, too, which Dr. Pennell says “could save tens of thousands of lives.”
“Unfortunately, we’re not getting much support from insurers to pay for them,” he says.
What you can do to help
Lung cancer research needs financial support, Dr. Pennell says. Advocating for support for lung cancer research could be the key to funding the research that discovers a cure.
“I would encourage survivors, especially those who never smoked, to advocate for lung cancer research and to let people know that progress is being made,” Dr. Pennell says. “We need to get the word out about how important this is to everyone, not just to those who smoke.”