"The only thing you need in order to get lung cancer is lungs," Dr. Nathan Pennell, a lung cancer specialist, said.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on August 13, 2021. It has since been updated.
Many people believe that only smokers will ever get lung cancer. Sure, smoking does cause extensive damage to the lungs, but it is not the only reason why someone might get cancer. According to Mayo Clinic, smoking is the leading cause of cancer, but in non-smokers, there are no clear causes of cancer.
Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer, according to Cancer.org. "It's a lot more common than people realize," Dr. Nathan Pennell, a lung cancer specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells PEOPLE.
Nearly 200,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with lung cancer, of which around 10% of the men and 15% of the women have never smoked. Pennell then spoke about how researchers are unsure if the rise in lung cancer cases among non-smokers is because "it's truly more common and more people are getting it, or whether it's just a higher percentage of people with lung cancer are non-smokers because fewer people are smoking. Less than 15% of adults in the U.S. are smoking now, which is fantastic, so a higher percentage of the cases of lung cancer in the last five or six years are in non-smokers."
But generally, "the only thing you need in order to get lung cancer is lungs," he says. As mentioned before, there is no clear reason why non-smokers get lung cancer, but "there are a number of risk factors other than tobacco for lung cancer," says Pennell. Family history could be a contributing factor, suggests the doctor.
"Radon, which is a colorless odorless gas that is in most people's basements in the United States, is probably the second biggest risk factor for lung cancer behind tobacco. And industrial pollution and other things like heavy metals certainly can play a role as well."
The worst thing is that lung cancer is hard to diagnose early in non-smokers. "We have screening CT scans, but that's only for people who have smoked at least 30 packs a year and are over age 50," Pennell says. "For people who have smoked less than that, or have never smoked, there's no screening."
In most cases for non-smokers, lung cancer is detected by mere luck. "If they go into the emergency room because they had a bike accident or a car accident and get scans, doctors could spot a nodule in their lungs," he says. There will be symptoms like a persistent cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, and losing weight, along with a hoarse voice, but "unfortunately, most of the time when you develop symptoms from your lung cancer, it's more advanced at that point and harder to cure."
If detected in the early stages, like it was for Kathy Griffin, then a lobectomy is the typical procedure. "Doctors will usually remove the complete lobe of the lung where the tumor is, leaving you with the other half still to breathe. And in non-smokers, especially, typically you can survive just fine on three-quarters of your lungs," he says.
But the good thing is that people won't have to spend a lot of time in the hospital, post-surgery. "Oftentimes people are only in the hospital for 48 hours and within a month they feel seventy-five percent better. And within three months they feel, more or less, a hundred percent again."
"People can even live with one lung, honestly. Especially if they're healthy."
Now, you know that the best thing to do is to always get your checkups, you never know what's going on inside your body.
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Astrid StawiarzDisclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.