Do Non-smokers Get Lung Cancer?

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Lung Cancer

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a condition characterized by uncontrolled cell division in the lungs. The abnormal growth of cancer cells interferes with normal cell function. Cancer cells can eventually get into the bloodstream and lymph nodes, and move to other places in the body, thus spreading the damage. Lung cancers usually originate in the airways (bronchioles or bronchi) or the small air sacs (alveoli) within the lungs.

Lung cancer is a major cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. In India, lung cancer accounts for 5.9% of all cancers and 8.1% of all cancer-related deaths, with the statistics expected to rise further in the future.

What causes lung cancer?

We do not really know what exactly causes the cellular changes that lead to lung cancer, but certain factors increase the risk of cellular damage that can result in lung cancer. Smoking tobacco is the most important and strongest risk factor for lung cancer.  About 80% of lung cancer fatalities are attributed to smoking with exposure to second-hand smoke being another significant contributor.

Do non-smokers get lung cancer?

You should be aware that the ratio of non-smokers among those suffering from lung cancer is swelling year after year. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 20% of lung cancer deaths in the US every year have never consumed tobacco in any form. While we do not have any such consolidated estimates for India, cancer specialists are reporting a clear trend of rising cases of lung cancer among non-smokers. Research in India has shown that out of every 10 patients diagnosed with lung cancer, around three patients have no history of smoking. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), estimates that as many as 20 to 25% of lung cancer patients are non-smokers.

Also, the spectrum of who gets affected by lung cancer is now changing. Earlier, the demographic profile largely affected was the elderly tobacco-smoking men (who were diagnosed with squamous or small cell carcinoma). However, now we see an increasing number of younger individuals, non-smokers, and women affected by lung cancer. (with a predominance of adenocarcinoma).

There is also a difference in the type of lung cancer that affects non-smokers. As per the CDC, more than 50% of lung cancer found in those who never smoked are adenocarcinomas or cancers that begin in the cells that line the lung’s tiny air sacs and make substances such as mucus.

What causes lung cancer in non-smokers?

Lung cancer in non-smokers can stem from exposure to radon, second-hand smoke, air pollution, or other environmental factors. Occupational exposure to asbestos, diesel exhaust, or certain chemicals can also trigger lung cancer in non-smokers.

A minority of lung cancers in non-smokers emerge without known risk factors. Some cases may be sporadic or random, while others could result from factors we don’t know yet.

The lung cancers associated with non-smokers often affect younger individuals and show distinct genetic changes compared to smoker-related cancers. Genetic factors, inherited from both parents, influence disease susceptibility to many cancers. Multiple genetic alterations are usually required to cause lung cancer.

What should you consider proactively?

The key message is that non-smokers should be aware that they are also vulnerable to lung cancer. You can proactively take steps to reduce your risk of dying from lung cancer in two important ways.

1] Seeking medical advice

It is always important to remember that lung cancer may not produce any severe symptoms in the early stages. However, do see the doctor if you have:

  1. A persistent cough that does not go away or gets worse
  2. Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (phlegm or spit)
  3. Chest pain that often gets worsened with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Hoarseness
  6. Shortness of breath
  7. Unexplained weight loss
  8. Feeling tired or weak

2] Screening for lung cancer

Screening is important for early detection as it involves using tests or examinations to identify diseases in individuals who do not show symptoms. Regular health checks can identify lung cancer at an early stage when treatment is most effective. Chest X-rays are often the initial imaging tests ordered when lung disease is suspected. However, they may not detect early-stage lung cancer effectively.

In recent years, low-dose CT (LDCT) scans have proven valuable for higher-risk individuals. LDCT scans can identify abnormal lung areas that may indicate cancer. Research demonstrates that annual LDCT screening for high-risk individuals can save lives.

The Apollo ProHealth program recommends annual LDCT scans for people between 50 and 80 years old who are in good health and fall into one of these categories:

  • You currently smoke or quit smoking within the last 15 years.
  • You’ve smoked at least 20 pack-years (calculated by the number of packs smoked a day times the number of years smoked).

However, even if you don’t fit these criteria, there may still be reasons to consider an LDCT scan.

If you have any of the following risk factors, it might be wise to discuss an LDCT scan with your healthcare provider:

  • Being around smoke even if you don’t smoke yourself.
  • Working in an industry where you’re exposed to environmental pollutants?
  • Having a history of benign lung diseases or inflammatory lung conditions.
  • Having family members with lung cancer.
  • Having previously received radiation therapy to the chest area for other cancers.

Even if you don’t fall into any of the high-risk categories mentioned above, an LDCT scan may still be an option after a clinical evaluation. Your doctor might suggest an LDCT scan if it’s needed based on your specific situation.

It’s important to note that LDCT may involve a small radiation dose with each scan. While this dose is less than that from a standard CT scan, it is more than the dose from a chest X-ray.

Why Apollo ProHealth?

The right screening tests that would pick up diseases in a sensitive and specific manner are extremely crucial components of a reliable and trustworthy health check program. Apollo ProHealth is carefully designed to include the right set of tests and clinical examinations to ensure that diseases are diagnosed early, with accurate and reliable results, so that you can be assured of perfect health and peace of mind!