If you never took up the habit of smoking, good for you. Being a smoker is among the worst lifestyle choices you can make. It is a contributing factor to a number of diseases, including stroke, heart disease, and of course lung cancer. But surprisingly, and unfortunately, even those of us who have never smoked are not free from risk of these conditions. In fact, new research suggests that the chances of a nonsmoker developing what was once almost entirely thought of as a smoker’s disease–lung cancer–has begun to increase in recent years, even as smoking rates have declined.
The study, which took place at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, found that the rate of lung cancer in nonsmokers appears to be rising, and the form of the disease that is prevalent among the nonsmokers is particularly aggressive.1 “Proportion of Lung Cancer Patients Who Never Smoked Increases.” International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. 8 September 2015. Accessed 13 September 2015. http://www.iaslc.org/news/proportion-lung-cancer-patients-who-never-smoked-increases The subjects were more than 12,000 lung cancer patients treated at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee between 1990 and 2013.
The scientists grouped the patient records into those treated in the earlier years of the time frame, between 1990 and 1995, and those treated toward the later years of the time frame, between 2011 and 2013. They focused on patients with non-small cell lung cancer, which is the most common form of the disease, making up approximately 85 percent of lung cancer cases according to the American Cancer Society. Non-small cell lung cancer is often asymptomatic until it reaches an advanced, frequently non-curable, stage.2 “Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell).” American Cancer Society. 15 August 2014. Accessed 14 September 2015. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer-non-smallcell/detailedguide/non-small-cell-lung-cancer-detection
Of the non-small cell lung cancer patients treated between 1990 and 1995, nine percent had never smoked. However, among those treated between 2011 and 2013, that number jumped to almost 15 percent. That represents a 67% increase, and the majority of these lung cancer patients were women. Rates of small cell lung cancer, which is a far less common form of the disease, rose from 1.7 percent in the early nineties to 2.5 percent in the early 2010s–a smaller increase, but a 47% increase nonetheless.
And this was not the only recent research to discover this frightening trend. In fact, a new study at Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust in London determined that cases of non-small cell lung cancer more than doubled among people who had never smoked in an extremely brief period of only seven years.3 “Increasing Incidence of Non-smoking Lung Cancer: Presentation of Patients with Early Disease to a Tertiary Institution in the UK.” International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. 8 September 2015. Accessed 14 September 2015 The participants were 2,170 lung cancer patients around the United Kingdom who had surgical treatment for the disease at some point from 2008 through 2014.
So it would appear that, at least in the Western world, this is not a phenomenon isolated to one location. But there may be flaws present in both studies that skew the numbers to some extent. In the British research, the subject sample size was rather small and only based on one medical center, so it might not be ideally representative of the population as a whole. And in the U.S. trial, the scientists relied on the volunteers to self-report their smoking background, which is not always completely accurate.
However, taken together, the results are more than suggestive enough that your risk of developing lung cancer, even if you are not a smoker, has begun to steadily increase. While some of the contributing factors, such as the level of air pollution where you live, may be somewhat out of your control (you can at least filter the air inside your house), others are not. Exposure to secondhand smoke is linked with lung cancer in nonsmokers, so be sure to keep your home and anywhere else you spend a lot of time smoke free. And if there is a family history of lung cancer, it is worth being extra vigilant as there may be a genetic component to the disease.
But another factor not mentioned in connection with these studies is radon gas. As houses have become more energy efficient over the last several decades, they have also tended to trap radon gas in your house at levels never before seen in the history of human civilization. Radon gas is the second biggest factor in the onset of lung cancer after cigarettes. Eliminating the problem is easy (proper ventilation), and testing to see if you have a problem is inexpensive (a long term test kit runs around $36.)4 http://www.radonzone.com/alpha-track-test-kit.html
Eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a daily exercise routine, and living a healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward cancer protection. In fact, a 2010 study at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France showed that higher levels of vitamin B6 in the blood cut the risk of lung cancer by half,5 Johansson, Mattias; et al. “Serum B Vitamin Levels and Risk of Lung Cancer.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 16 June 2010. Accessed 14 September 2015. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=186079 and sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, and wild salmon are all good sources. And since there are few symptoms associated with non-small cell lung cancer, don’t hesitate to visit your doctor if you have a cough that’s not clearing up or experience hoarseness for more than a few days. Catching cancer early can make a big difference in your prognosis.
|↑1||“Proportion of Lung Cancer Patients Who Never Smoked Increases.” International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. 8 September 2015. Accessed 13 September 2015. http://www.iaslc.org/news/proportion-lung-cancer-patients-who-never-smoked-increases|
|↑2||“Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell).” American Cancer Society. 15 August 2014. Accessed 14 September 2015. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer-non-smallcell/detailedguide/non-small-cell-lung-cancer-detection|
|↑3||“Increasing Incidence of Non-smoking Lung Cancer: Presentation of Patients with Early Disease to a Tertiary Institution in the UK.” International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. 8 September 2015. Accessed 14 September 2015|
|↑5||Johansson, Mattias; et al. “Serum B Vitamin Levels and Risk of Lung Cancer.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 16 June 2010. Accessed 14 September 2015. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=186079|