Can I Get Lung Cancer Even If I Don’t Smoke?

Holy smokes, Toledo, we’ve been making the top of some unfortunate lists for several decades. In 1991, we held the record as the city with the most smokers in the United States, recalls Ronald Wainz, MD, medical director of the Thoracic Oncology Clinic at ProMedica Cancer Institute. But we’ve come a long way since then, especially after the smoking ban took effect in 2003, making it less convenient for people to smoke in public places.

“Smoking peaked around 1955-1960, when the average American smoked about half a pack a cigarettes of a day,” Dr. Wainz says. “Smoking has steadily declined over the years, and now only about 15% of people living in the United States are smokers.”

So if more people are kicking the habit, or choosing not to smoke in the first place, why does lung cancer remain the number one cancer killer among men and women?

According to Dr. Wainz, smoking remains the biggest risk factor for lung cancer, with nearly 80% of lung cancer diagnoses being a direct result of smoking. However, additional risks may pose a threat to non-smokers, including:

  • Second hand smoke
  • Radon gas inhalation
  • Asbestos exposure
  • Environmental factors such as air pollution
  • Family history
  • Aging

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“As you age, your risk of developing lung cancer becomes greater,” says Dr. Wainz. “While some factors are uncontrollable, there are precautions you can take. Avoid cigarette smoke in every way you can, for example. And consider having your home checked for radon.”

The Deadliness of Lung Cancer

Not all cancers are treated equally. Let’s compare breast cancer and lung cancer in women, for instance. Dr. Wainz shares that the 5-year survival rate for women with breast cancer is 89%, compared to the 5-year survival rate for women with lung cancer, which is 15%.

“Even though breast cancer is more frequent, lung cancer is much more deadly,” Dr. Wainz says.

Dr. Wainz explains that this is because breast cancer is often caught in the earlier stages, while lung cancer may be diagnosed too late. Lung cancer can progress rapidly, and because there are rarely early warning signs for the disease, you might not know you have it.

Fortunately, there are several local programs for people considered at-risk of lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Screenings and Clinics

Think you are a good candidate for a lung cancer screening? ProMedica offers a low-dose chest CT scan that takes less than 10 minutes to complete and could save your life. The screening is available at several ProMedica facilities and is intended for individuals who are either:

  • A Medicare/Medicaid patient age 55-77 years old, currently smokes or has quit within the past 15 years, and smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for the past 30 years.
  • A commercial insurance patient age 55-80 years old, currently smokes or has quit within the past 15 years, and smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for the past 30 years.

“These screenings reduce lung cancer mortality by 20%,” says Dr. Wainz. “If you qualify, there’s no reason not to do it since it’s covered by most insurances, including Medicare.”

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A thoracic oncology, or lung cancer, clinic is also offered on a weekly basis at ProMedica Flower Hospital. Intended for patients that have found something new on their X-rays or scans, the lung clinic offers immediate expertise and an action plan.

“Imagine your dad gets a scan and new spot is detected so there’s cause for concern,” says Dr. Wainz. “We can see patients within a week at the thoracic oncology clinic. We have six different specialists on-hand, including a pulmonologist (lung and respiratory specialist), thoracic surgeon (operates on the lungs), medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, radiologist and pathologist (biopsy specialist). Your dad’s case would be reviewed by these six people and the next steps would be figured out immediately.”

For additional information about ProMedica Cancer Institute’s Lung Clinic, please call 419-824-1952.