Danielle Nigh had never smoked a day in her life when she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the age of 37. Lung cancer in non-smokers is becoming more of a concern.

Smoking is, by far, the leading cause of lung cancer, but American Cancer Society says about 15% of lung cancers develop in people who have never smoked. Two-thirds of non-smokers who get lung cancer are women.

The medical oncologist at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center who helped treat Danielle’s Stage 4 lung cancer says her disease likely formed from the growth of abnormal genes in her lungs.

“These are called sporadic cases. Just like breast cancer can form in a woman with no family history, lung cancer can occur in non-smokers,” explains Dr. Joseph Haggerty. “We’re only now starting to discover why. It sounds just like mutations can occur in life, they can occur on a cellular level. That defect can lead to a proliferative advantage for that cell, allowing it to grow rapidly.”

Other causes of lung cancer in non-smokers include:

  • Radon – exposure to this radioactive gas in homes is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers
  • Asbestos – exposure to this mineral, found in home insulation, can lead to mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining
  • Secondhand smoke – non-smokers exposed to others’ cigarette smoke increases their risk of developing lung cancer – up to 20-30% for people who live with smokers
  • Heredity or genetic predisposition – those with family history of lung cancer are more likely to develop lung cancer and may benefit from risk assessment and genetic counseling

People who don’t smoke don’t usually look for – or even display – symptoms of lung cancer. Danielle said she didn’t. According to research supported by the National Institutes of Health, lung cancer often is not detected in a non-smoker until it has spread to other parts of the body, resulting in symptoms related to the other tumor sites, such as fatigue or bone pain.

In Danielle’s case, headaches and a seizure revealed the cancer had spread to her brain and then later her spine. Each time, she beat the disease.

If you or a loved one smoke, get help quitting: Call Adventist HealthCare’s Health & Wellness Department at 1-800-542-5096 or the Maryland Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.