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Even non-smokers are at risk for lung cancer

Not smoking is the biggest thing you can do to reduce your lung cancer risk, but did you know that up to one in five people diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers? In fact, the percentage of lung cancer in non-smokers is increasing.

In the U.S., between 1990 and 1995, 8 percent of lung cancer diagnoses occurred in non-smokers. This number increased to 15% between 2011 and 2013.

In the U.S., between 1990 and 1995, 8 percent of lung cancer diagnoses occurred in non-smokers. This number increased to 15% between 2011 and 2013.

Today in the U.S., approximately 20% of lung cancer diagnosed in women and 8% in men are in non-smokers. If lung cancer in non-smokers was considered a separate cancer type, it would be in the top 10 cancers in the U.S., both in incidence and mortality.

What are the risk factors for lung cancer in non-smokers?


Exposure to radon gas is considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer, accounting for approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It is invisible and doesn’t have a smell. Radon escapes into the air from certain uranium-containing soils and rock formations. It becomes problematic when enclosed living spaces are built over these areas, typically by seeping into foundational cracks and becoming concentrated in their airspaces.

Being exposed to radon for a long period of time can lead to lung cancer. Radon gas in the air breaks down into tiny radioactive elements that can be breathed in and lodged in the lining of the lung, where they can give off radiation. This radiation can damage lung cells and eventually lead to lung cancer.

For most people, the largest potential exposure to radon is in their home. The risk of radon exposure occurs in all 50 states, but incidence varies among states. Only 3% of homes in Mississippi have unsafe radon levels, but it is still wise to check your home. This can be done by a professional, or you can order a do-it-yourself kit. If unsafe levels are found, you can take certain steps to achieve a safe level.


Secondhand smoke, or smoke that you breathe from another person burning a tobacco product, is linked to approximately 7,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Public spaces that have banned smoking have helped reduce this exposure.


Prolonged and repeated exposure to carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, at work, such as asbestos, heavy metals and diesel exhaust, can increase lung cancer risk. Work-related exposure to these carcinogens has decreased as the government and industry have taken steps to protect workers. If you work around these agents, be sure to take recommended precautions to limit your exposure.

Written by Dr. Pamela Tuli

Dr. Pamela Tuli is a hematologist-oncologist practicing with The Medical Oncology Group - Memorial Physician Clinics. She can be contacted at (228)-575-1234.

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