You may have never taken a puff of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe in your life.
But I’m here to tell you…that doesn’t mean you can’t get lung cancer.
In fact, according to a recent analysis, more and more “never-smokers” are getting lung cancer.
And here in the U.S., the statistics are particularly grim—with up 40,000 Americans who’ve never taken a puff in their lives developing this devastating disease each and every year!
Worse yet, we know very little about what causes lung cancer in these supposedly “low-risk” folks. And here’s why…
Old biases continue to linger
Back in the mid-1980s, a group of bureaucrats at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) made the fatally flawed, unscientific decision that smoking essentially causes all cases of lung cancer (and lung disease). They also decided that future research would focus on smoking cessation and prevention.
Meanwhile, they effectively ignored the science about genetic susceptibility and environmental risks of lung cancer.
I know all about this tragic deception because I was in the room when they publicly announced it with great fanfare.
And they fraudulently made it seem like they were making some kind of major “scientific” advancement.
Of course, almost all those involved in that travesty are gone now. But as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do live after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Indeed, nearly 40 years after the NCI bureaucrats made that politically driven decision, lung cancer victims STILL face tremendous medical bias. And as the authors of the recent analysis I just mentioned point out, “the stigma of smoking is the major factor behind the lack of interest in, knowledge of, and research into lung cancer.”
Without a doubt, lung cancer gets a lot less attention than breast, ovarian, colon, and other cancers—despite the fact that it’s still the No. 1 overall cancer killer in the U.S. (Perhaps this ignorance is why it remains the No. 1 killer!)
Worse yet, most people today who develop lung cancer are never-smokers or quit long ago.
In fact, as I mentioned, roughly 40,000 never-smokers in the U.S. develop lung cancer each year. And those numbers are much worse than cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.
Plus, lung cancer among never-smokers is the sixth leading cause of cancer death today in the U.S.!
But with the NCI’s decades-old, fatally flawed lung cancer policy, non-smokers tend to think they aren’t at any risk of developing the disease. When in reality…
- One out of 10 smokers get lung cancer or other lung diseases.
- One out of 100 never-smokers still get lung cancer. (Though, sadly, that number is dramatically on the rise.)
Clearly, it’s high time to move past the NCI’s narrow focus and investigate the other incontrovertible causes of lung cancer.
Like obvious genetic components…
Some people are just genetically susceptible to smoke
Humans have been breathing smoke in dwellings like caves, tents, teepees, and even early log cabins since the invention of fire two million years ago. Ambient smoke levels inside these kinds of dwellings are much higher than levels from tobacco smoke.
So, it only stands to reason that humans long ago developed some natural defenses against smoke inhalation. Indeed, the lungs have enzymes that break down and detoxify smoke and products of combustion.
But a minority of people carry genetic variants, making them deficient in these protective enzymes. (There are blood tests available to find out if you carry these variants.)
In fact, I actually worked on one such blood test way back in 1974 with Dr. Jack Lieberman at the Pulmonary Biochemistry Lab, at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California, as a summer college student research fellow.
Additionally, high-risk individuals who carry this variant, or other risk factors, can now be screened with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT).
But we still need to put more resources into studying the genetic and environmental factors that increase lung cancer risk in non-smokers. Recent research points to urban pollution and some indoor pollution as contributing causes. (Another important reason to spend more time outdoors in Nature and green spaces.)
“Lung cancer in never smokers: a hidden disease.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2019. doi.org/10.1177/0141076819843654