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Lung Cancer Risks for Non-smokers

Article date: October 31, 2014

By Stacy Simon

Staying away from tobacco is the most important thing any of us can do to avoid getting lung cancer. But it’s not a guarantee. Every year, about 16,000 to 24,000 Americans die of lung cancer, even though they have never smoked. In fact, if lung cancer in non-smokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States.

According to Lee Westmaas, PhD, American Cancer Society director of tobacco control research, people with lung cancer often face an additional burden – the fear that they’ll be judged negatively because smoking is so strongly linked to lung cancer. In an Expert Voices blog, he says even people with lung cancer who never smoked feel this stigma.

Westmaas says blaming people for their disease may make it harder for them to cope, and possibly even lead to depression. In addition, he says it’s important for cancer patients to address these feelings through counseling and education. Westmaas says counseling for patients who did smoke may include talking about the addictiveness of tobacco and the deception of the tobacco industry and the role that plays in smoking.

Another approach is to educate the general public about the many factors that can raise the risk for lung cancer. Researchers have made a lot of progress over the past decade in understanding what causes lung cancer in non-smokers.

  • Radon gas. The leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to radon gas, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It accounts for about 20,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Studies have found that the risk of lung cancer is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house. Because radon gas can’t be seen or smelled, the only way to know whether it’s a problem in your home is to test for it. A Citizen’s Guide to Radon, produced by the EPA, explains how to test your home for radon easily and inexpensively, as well as what to do if your levels are too high.
  • Secondhand smoke. Each year, an estimated 3,400 non-smoking adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke. Laws that ban smoking in public places have helped to reduce this danger. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, is working to expand and strengthen these laws to further protect both smokers and non-smokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke.
  • Cancer-causing agents at work. For some people, the workplace is a source of exposure to carcinogens like asbestos and diesel exhaust. Work-related exposure to such cancer-causing materials has decreased in recent years, as the government and industry have taken steps to help protect workers. But the dangers are still present, and if you work around these agents, you should be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.
  • Air pollution. While it’s long been known that both indoor and outdoor air pollution contribute to lung cancer, a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine measured the fine particulate matter that contributes to lung cancer deaths in non-smokers. Using data from a large American Cancer Society study, the researchers concluded that even tiny amounts of increased carcinogens in air pollution significantly increased the risk.
  • Gene mutations. Researchers are learning more and more about what causes cells to become cancerous, and how lung cancer cells differ between non-smokers and smokers. For example, an article published in Clinical Cancer Research explains that a particular kind of gene mutation is much more common in lung cancer in non-smokers than smokers. This mutation activates a gene that normally helps cells grow and divide. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on constantly, so the lung cancer cells grow faster. Knowing what causes the cell changes has helped researchers develop targeted therapies, drugs that specifically target these mutations.

Lifestyle changes to lower risk

Non-smokers have already eliminated their greatest risk factor for lung cancer. Male smokers are about 23 times more likely and female smokers are about 13 times more likely to get lung cancer. But non-smokers can make some lifestyle changes to help reduce their risk even more.

Testing your home for radon, avoiding secondhand smoke, and limiting exposures at work can help you avoid the leading causes of lung cancer in non-smokers.

A healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables may also help reduce your risk of lung cancer. Some evidence suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may help protect against lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers. But any positive effect of fruits and vegetables on lung cancer risk would be much less than the increased risk from smoking.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please contact permissionrequest@cancer.org.

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