“I have never smoked, so I was shocked beyond belief that I had lung cancer,” the Indianapolis resident said. “I had heard that non-smokers could get lung cancer, but I never thought it would happen to me.”
Dr. Nasser Hanna, an associate professor of hematology/oncology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a physician-researcher with the I.U. Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, said that 10 percent of lung cancer patients are non-smokers. For reasons not totally understood, women who have never smoked are disproportionally affected by lung cancer. Twenty percent of non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer are women; 7 percent of men with lung cancer are non-smokers.
In the United States, 219,440 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year and 159,390 will die from the disease in 2009, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Overall, Hanna said lung cancer will kill more people than colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer – the second-, third-, and fourth-leading cancer killers – combined.
How can a non-smoker develop lung cancer?
Exposure to second-hand smoke and such long-term occupational risks as working in factories and coal mines put non-smokers at increased risk.
Researchers also have learned that a genetic mutation can leave some people vulnerable to lung cancer even if they never smoked. The mutation occurs in the epidermal factor receptor gene, which signals cancerous cells to divide and grow, Dr. Hanna explained. Other gene fusions also have been discovered in people who never smoked.
What are the signs and symptoms of lung cancer?
Unfortunately, the warning signs don’t usually appear during the early stages of the disease. “A person’s first sign might be a symptom of advanced disease,” Hanna said.
According to Hanna, the following are some symptoms of lung cancer:
• A persistent cough;
• Coughing up blood;
• Shortness of breath, and;
• Hoarse voice.
Symptoms of advanced disease may include:
• A new area of pain;
• Unintended weight loss;
• Fatigue, and;
• Diminished appetite.
How is lung cancer discovered?
Unfortunately, current screenings – a chest X-ray, for example – do not find lung cancer early enough to improve a person’s chance for a cure. Until an effective screening becomes the standard that is widely accepted, people – especially smokers and former smokers – are encouraged to talk with their doctors about their risks and to discuss their screening options.
Lung cancer clinical trials
To learn about lung cancer clinical trials at the IU Simon Cancer Center, visit www.cancer.iu.edu/trials.
Michael Schug is Communications Specialist for Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.