While smoking is the #1 cause of lung cancer in America, 20% of these women have never touched a cigarette. Dr. Michael Collins with Intermountain Medical Center estimates that up to 60 percent of the women he treats for lung cancer in his practice are life-long non-smokers. So how are they developing lung cancer?
Even though smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer in women, a higher percentage of women who develop lung cancer are life-long non-smokers. Some of the causes may include exposure to radon in our homes,second-hand smoke, other environmental and occupational exposures, or a genetic predisposition. Recent studies suggest infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) may also play a role.
For years when Rebecca Falzano was living in New York City, she woke up every morning wheezing and catching her breath. Her doctor told her she had asthma, but no inhaler fixed her difficult breathing.
She thought she would get better when she moved to Maine – what she knew as home of the Breathe Easy Coalition – but her symptoms got worse. Finally, her doctor recommended a CT scan. She was floored by the result: There was a tumor on her lung.
"This blindsided me as a 28-year-old, active, nonsmoking woman," she says. "I had a lot of the stereotypical thoughts about lung cancer. I thought it was a smoker's disease. I thought, 'How could I possibly have this?'"
Falzano is among one in five women who has lung cancer but has never smoked. She and others with the disease struggle with the stigma tied to lung cancer – when Falzano tells people about her disease, their first question is whether she smoked. She often responds, "Why does that matter?" Lung cancer advocates say too much shame and guilt is imparted on those with the disease, and it prevents people from talking about lung cancer, which leads to little awareness and advocacy.
Lung cancer takes more lives than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancer combined, according to the American Lung Association. The five-year survival rate for those diagnosed with lung cancer is 16 percent. The lung cancer rate has fallen 21 percent among men, but for reasons that remain unclear, the rates have risen 116 percent among women. About 160,000 people die from lung cancer every year, according to the National Cancer Institute, and more than half die within one year of being diagnosed.
Lung Cancer Causes
The causes of nonsmokers developing lung cancer remain unclear. Some people who never smoke appear to be more susceptible to the disease, while others smoke their entire lives and never get lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, announced in October that air pollution was a leading cause of lung cancer.
Other causes of lung cancer include secondhand smoke, genetics and exposure to radon, uranium, arsenic, nickel and hazardous chemicals like asbestos. Heather Edmonds, 35, of Washington, D.C., lost both of her parents to lung cancer. Neither smoked, so she had their house tested for radon. The results came back negative. Her siblings thought there might be asbestos in the buildings where they worked, but no tests were conducted.