Why Do Non-Smokers Get Lung Cancer?

Why Do Non-Smokers Get Lung Cancer? about undefined

It seems like an especially cruel twist of fate: Never smoking and dying of lung cancer.

It’s true that smoking accounts for nearly nine out of ten cases of lung cancer. But, quite a few non-smokers get it as well.

If almost all lung cancer cases are smoking-related, how can it be that it’s still a scary threat to us non-smokers, too? The reason is simple. . .

Overall, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, accounting for 23 percent of the overall 609,300 cancer deaths. In 2022, scientists estimate 130,180 people will die from lung cancer.

Lung cancer kills more people each year than breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer combined. So many people die of lung cancer, the roughly 13 percent who didn’t smoke still adds up to a lot of people.

Something like 14,000 non-smokers die of lung cancer each year, while fewer than 10,000 die of melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer that people worry about so much – the one for which they run public service announcements warning us to stay out of the sun.

Lung cancer: the silent killer   

Aside from anti-smoking campaigns, lung cancer gets no publicity. The authorities who concoct these anti-smoking ad campaigns give no thought to a non-smoker’s risk of cancer. Yet the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is terrible. This is one kind of cancer you LEAST want to get.

So, let me get right to the ways a non-smoker can get lung cancer…

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says your family history may predispose you to lung cancer—especially if you have an immediate family member who has or had lung cancer. Certain lifestyle or environmental factors may also increase your risk of developing the disease. The list includes:

  • Secondhand smoke: Exposure to smoke at home or work may significantly increase your risk.
  • Exposure to asbestos or other pollutants: Carcinogenic chemicals in the workplace increase lung cancer risk, especially if you smoke.
  • Exposure to radon: This colorless, odorless radioactive gas is found in some houses and is a leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is considered the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. So have your house checked out to make sure it’s not contaminated with this substance.

Just how bad is smoking anyway?   

Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer every bit as much as they say. Overall, lung cancer strikes one American out of 13 during a lifetime. But for male smokers, the lifetime risk leaps to about one out of six, and for female smokers to more than one out of ten (11.6 percent, to be exact).

But wait, it gets worse if you’re a heavy smoker (defined as smoking more than five cigarettes a day). Nearly one out of four male heavy smokers, and around one out of five (18.5 percent) of female heavy smokers, can expect to get lung cancer.

Looked at another way, all male smokers, “light” and “heavy” smokers averaged together, have 13 times the risk of getting lung cancer that male non-smokers face.

Just in case you’re a smoker and figuring you’ll fall into the lucky 75 to 80 percent who don’t get lung cancer, let me throw a little cold water on that. Smoking is also implicated in heart disease, mouth and throat cancer, bladder cancer – in fact, it increases the risk of a whole list of deadly diseases. It’s a suicidal habit.

It breaks my heart to see a young person smoking on the street. What on earth are they thinking?

Hard to find early  

Lung cancer rose quickly to the top of the death charts, in part, because it has a stealthy way of eluding detection in the early stages.

According to the ACS, most lung cancers don’t cause ANY symptoms until they’ve spread too far to be easily cured. The ACS says you should also be alert for the following common symptoms:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

Because many of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than lung cancer—it’s best to see your doctor right away so the exact cause can be determined.

Diagnosing lung cancer 

The gold-standard of lung cancer diagnosis is the chest X-ray. According to doctors, a lung tumor usually looks like a white-grey mass on a chest X-ray. Unfortunately, many people don’t routinely get chest X-rays anymore, which is why so many cases of lung cancer are usually missed until it’s too late.

Scientists are working on other ways to diagnose this deadly disease early including a simple breath test. This development in cancer screening comes to us courtesy of researchers at the Respiratory Institute at the famous Cleveland Clinic.

According to Peter J. Mazzone, MD, FCCP, director of the lung cancer program and lead researcher, tumor growth causes cancer cells to release a special chemical. Using a breath test to detect the presence of this chemical could indicate that a patient has lung cancer.

Dr. Mazzone told Science Daily that the Cleveland Clinic researchers compared 82 patients with untreated lung cancer with a control group of 155 people who were considered at risk for lung cancer or who had benign lung nodules.

The researchers asked these patients to breathe normally while they used a chemical sensor called a colorimetric sensor array to analyze their breath. The colors on this sensor are designed to change when exposed to various chemicals. If the patients’ breath contained chemical markers for lung cancer, the array would show that in a pattern of color changes.

The colorimetric sensor array continually monitored the chemicals that the patients exhaled. This produced sensor changes that accurately distinguished the breath of people with lung cancer from the control group.

The findings suggest that this type of breath test could be an effective early test for lung cancer.

Good science or hocus pocus? 

Before you decide that cancer detection from a breath test is mere nonsense, consider this…

Dogs have an amazing sense of smell that’s about 100,000 times more sensitive than ours.

You’ve seen our canine friends used to sniff out everything from drugs at an airport to underground gas pipes.

By the same token, their amazing sniff sense can also detect diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy.

By just smelling a patient’s urine, they can sniff out bladder cancer. And smelling your breath can help them detect early and late lung and breast cancer.

Essentially, CANCER STINKS and dogs can smell it!

This is because your breath contains chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In a press statement, Dr. Mazzone explained, “our cells use energy, just like a car burns fuel.”

Dr. Mazzone says, “Just as you get exhaust from a car’s engine, cells produce exhaust from their chemical processes.”

Your lungs produce the bulk of that “exhaust.” So Dr. Mazzone’s team has devised a test that is as sensitive to these chemicals as a dog’s sense of smell would be.

Other diseases have distinct smells, too 

Doctors use breath signatures from heart-transplant patients to detect alkanes. These chemicals indicate that your immune system is rejecting the organ and that heart cells are experiencing oxidative damage that forces them to degrade fatty acids…

Anesthesiologists use carbon dioxide tests to ensure they are placing breathing tubes down the right airway…

Doctors test for nitric oxide in breath to determine whether asthma patients are responding to their medications…

Given these current uses of breath tests in the medical field—you can see why a cancer breath test might not be so farfetched!

When to get tested 

Currently, the lung cancer screening guidelines do not include non-smokers. The American Cancer Society is only recommending yearly lung cancer screening for current and former smokers. Of course, if you’ve spent years working around toxic chemicals or feel you have other, significant risk factors, talk to your doctor about screening for lung cancer.

Best regards,

Lee Euler,


  1. American Cancer Society. Lung cancer factsheet. Retrieved online at
  2. American College of Chest Physicians. Exhaled breath biomarker may detect lung cancer. ScienceDaily. from 
  3. Flatow, I. (2011). Can dogs smell cancer? National Public Radio: Talk of the Nation segment. Transcript retrieved from 
  4. Park, A. 2013. Smell Test: Using Breath to Sniff Out Cancer, Infections and More. Story retrieved from 
  5. Plain Dealer. 2012. How dogs detect cancer, other diseases in humans with smell: Drs. Oz and Roizen. 

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