How is Lung Cancer Different in Nonsmokers?

Doctor Q&A

It’s no secret that smoking can cause lung cancer, but did you know that nonsmokers can get lung cancer too? In 2018, the American Cancer Society reported that 20 percent of lung cancer deaths in the United States were nonsmokers.

Today, we understand that there are different types of lung cancers, especially when it comes to smokers vs. nonsmokers. Below we’ll explore the key differences and risk factors that differentiate lung cancer in nonsmokers.

What are the risk factors of lung cancer in nonsmokers?

Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. While radon can exist outdoors naturally in harmless amounts, it can become concentrated in homes built on soil with uranium deposits. Because radon gas can’t be seen or smelled, the only way to know if your home has high levels of radon is to have it tested.

Believe it or not, secondhand smoke is another significant risk factor for nonsmokers. While a limited time spent near a smoker in a public area may pose little threat, regular exposure from someone who is close to you—say, a relative, coworker or roommate—could put you and others at risk for developing lung cancer.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to air pollution or carcinogens such as arsenic, asbestos and diesel exhaust can also put nonsmokers at risk for developing lung cancer. Thankfully, much has been done to reduce air pollution in the United States compared to many other countries, but it’s important that we continue to advocate for clean air, especially in our cities.

How is cancer different in nonsmokers?

Cancer in nonsmokers tends to grow slower and be concentrated in tumors, whereas cancer in smokers is more widespread in the lungs. The most common type of lung cancer diagnosed in nonsmokers is adenocarcinoma, which usually starts in the mucus-producing cells on the outside of the lungs. This type of cancer is likely to stay in the lungs rather than spread to other areas of the body.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

For both smokers and nonsmokers, lung cancer is hard to detect in its early stages because it usually appears without symptoms. As the cancer develops, symptoms can include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, hoarseness and even coughing up blood. If you have any persistent symptoms that worry you, consult with your doctor right away.

How is treatment different for nonsmokers?

When lung cancer is caught early in a nonsmoker, it can potentially be removed through surgery (as long as it’s confined to a localized area). This usually involves the removal of not only the tumor(s), but also some of the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. Nonsmokers with a healthy set of lungs will have an easier time tolerating and recovering from this surgery than smokers with compromised lungs.

If you’re worried about developing lung cancer, consult with your primary care physician—especially if you have a family history of lung cancer. He or she can help you identify your individual risk. If you don’t have a primary care physician, MyHealthKC can help you find the right one for you.