A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Lung cancer in nonsmokers? It’s possible

sad girl with sick lungs

Even if you don’t smoke, it’s possible to get lung cancer via secondhand smoke or exposure to radon.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say between 80-90 percent of lung cancer cases are linked to smoking, it is possible to get lung cancer even if you don’t smoke.

Nonsmoking causes of lung cancer

Secondhand smoke and high concentrations of radon, a natural gas, are linked to the development of lung cancer.

“We don’t know all the answers in terms of what potentially causes lung cancer in nonsmokers,” said Dr. Dean Delmastro, a Marshfield Clinic Health System medical oncologist/hematologist. “Radon is a source of radiation, and it just depends on how much you’re exposed to in terms of your risk of getting lung cancer.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon is linked to about 20,000 cases of lung cancer per year, making it the second leading lung cancer cause behind smoking.

Air quality, Delmastro said, also may be linked to lung cancer.

Types of lung cancer

There are three main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer and lung carcinoid tumor.

“Small cell lung cancer is highly linked to smoking,” Delmastro said.  “Non-small cell lung cancer also is highly associated with smoking, but there is a group of patients who have this type of lung cancer who are not smokers.”

Carcinoid tumors are not related to smoking and are a very rare form of cancer.

Prevention of lung cancer and cancer in general

Quitting smoking is the best way to prevent lung cancer. Staying clear of secondhand smoke and making sure your home has been tested for radon also are proactive ways to lower your risk for lung cancer.

Beyond not smoking, there are things you can do to ward off the development of cancer anywhere in the body.

“We know there are general things that are linked to cancer: lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyle, obesity and poor diet,” Delmastro said. “Improving your habits in those areas generally can help prevent cancer.”

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables and limiting consumption of red meat and cured, smoked or brined meat, are good examples of actions to improve your diet and reduce your risk for all types of cancer.

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