Why Lung Cancer Hits Non-Smokers

November 1, 2023 by MORE Health Staff

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Known as the “silent killer,” lung cancer kills almost three times as many men as prostate cancer and nearly three times as many women as breast cancer.

When diagnosed with lung cancer, others often respond, “Oh, do they smoke?” The answer is no in 20% of lung cancer cases. The queen of disco, Donna Summer, died from lung cancer at 63, and Christopher Reeve’s wife, Dana Reeve, succumbed to the disease at 44. Both were non-smokers. So, why are so many lung cancer cases unrelated to nicotine? Find out and help raise awareness this November during Lung Cancer Awareness Month.


1. Radon Gas Exposure

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep into buildings. Both new and old homes can have radon problems. Prolonged exposure to elevated levels of radon gas can increase the risk of developing lung cancer, even in non-smokers.

Radon levels are often highest in the lowest part of a home or building, like the basement, cellar, and living spaces in contact with the ground. There are no outward signs of radon, so every home should get tested. Assessing your exposure is fast, easy, and inexpensive, as many radon test kits are available online or in home improvement stores. 

The U.S. states with the highest radon levels include Alaska, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Washington. Globally, Norway, South Korea, the Czech Republic, and Russia are among the countries with the highest radon levels.

2. Occupational Exposure

Most occupational lung diseases are caused by long-term exposure, but in some instances, a single exposure to a hazardous agent can damage the lungs. Mining, construction, and manufacturing jobs can lead to exposure to carcinogens like asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and other chemicals. Long-term exposure to these substances can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

3. Air Pollution

Between six to eight million premature deaths from lung cancer are attributed to outdoor air pollution, mostly occurring in rapidly growing cities where industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, and fine particulate matter are present.

Indoor air pollution from solid fuels like coal, wood, or biomass accounts for about 3.8 million deaths. Inhaling these types of chemicals introduces harmful chemicals to a person’s body through the lungs and can lead to lung cancer. 

4. Genetic Factors or Family History

Specific inherited mutations increase the risk of developing small-cell lung cancer—an aggressive form of the disease. Knowing your family history and talking to your doctor about your risk level is essential.

5. Secondhand Smoke

Even without smoking a cigarette, you can develop lung cancer simply from being around its smoke. Unfortunately, there is no safe level of secondhand smoke, and even brief exposure can cause immediate harm. Secondhand smoke can cause serious health issues like heart disease, stroke, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, and lung cancer. In addition, inhaling toxic chemicals can damage lung cells and increase the likelihood of cancer.

The chances of non-smokers developing lung cancer are generally lower than smokers, but these factors can and do affect people’s lives worldwide. Regular screenings and physicals can help with the early detection of lung cancer and increase your chances of a positive health outcome.

As a company on a mission to improve patients’ lives globally, we hope bringing attention to lung cancer can help reduce the number of people impacted by this silent killer.

About MORE Health®

MORE Health is a global digital health company known for giving individuals access to the best medical minds in the world when facing a serious illness or diagnosis. Recognized as a leader in cross-border telemedicine, MORE Health delivers virtual Expert Medical Opinions from world-leading specialists by pairing technology and world-class service. This service is available to groups of any size in the U.S. and abroad as an employee benefit or on an individual self-pay basis. Since 2013, MORE Health has helped patients on six continents and continues its mission to provide patient advocacy to clients and members worldwide—when they need it most.

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