Dr Vineeta Goel – Director & HOD – Radiation Oncology, Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh
If you have never puffed a cigarette in your life, you may think that you will never get lung cancer. And it is true that you are likely to avoid lung cancer, but some never smokers still get affected by lung cancer.
For many decades, we have been associating the occurrence of lung cancer with a personal history of tobacco smoking. Paradoxically, recent demographic patterns in last 1-2 decades show that almost 40-50% lung cancers can occur in people non/never smokers too.
Factors like exposure to secondhand smoke, indoor and outdoor air pollution and certain DNA mutations are largely implicated for lung cancer in non-smokers. Secondhand smoke is the smoke you breathe in from another person’s burning tobacco product. Recently, the concept of third hand smoke has also been identified which refers to a film of nicotine and other chemicals which may be left behind on walls, furniture etc.
As cancer specialist, we were quite accustomed to seeing lung cancer majorly occurring in men with current/past history of smoking. These days we find many women, never smokers coming to us with lung cancer. Over the last few years, we oncologist have learned to identify and treat smoking and non-smoking related cancers differently. Lung cancer occurring in majority non-smokers are adenocarcinoma and it has a different pattern of mutation in their genes which are commonly known as EGFR or ALK mutations. These cancers with EGFR or ALK mutation also require a very different kind of approach for treatment and medications.
The key message is to avoid tobacco abuse/smoking to stay away from many cancers including lung cancer. However, if someone who is a non-smoker is having persistent chest symptoms like prolonged cough, breathlessness, blood in sputum etc., please don’t ignore them. Get yourself tested as lung cancer can occur in non-smokers too due to various environmental factors.