It’s natural to think that smokers are the only ones at risk for developing lung cancer. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Multiple contributing factors make it possible for nonsmokers to develop lung cancers. Approximately 10-20% of people diagnosed with lung cancer fall into this category. Because of this, it’s wise to know what else can influence your risk. Keep reading to learn about the causes of lung cancer in people who have never smoked.
1. Secondhand Smoke
While you might not be a smoker, being in regular contact with smokers can be dangerous for your health, too. Secondhand smoke puts you at a greater risk of developing lung cancer, even if you’ve never smoked. If you live with a smoker, consider asking them to smoke less indoors or to quit smoking. Remember that chemical residue on clothes and skin can still affect your lungs. The more you can minimize smoke contact, the better.
If avoiding secondhand smoke isn’t possible, use air purifiers. You can also frequently wash bedding, drapes, and other soft home furnishings to reduce toxic exposures.
2. Radon Gas: A Higher Level of Exposure for Coloradoans
Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that forms from the natural decay of the element uranium. Radon gas seeps into homes, schools, and workplaces through cracks in the foundation. This constant exposure can lead to the development of lung cancer.
The EPA considers Colorado residents to be at a higher level of exposure than in other parts of the country because of the amount of uranium found here. In fact, living in a Colorado home with average levels of radon is the equivalent of receiving 200 chest x-rays a year.
To minimize the risk, test your home for radon. Colorado offers a low-income radon testing program if you cannot afford it. Based on the results of your tests, you should seal any cracks in the foundation to keep the gas from coming into your home or workplace. You can also install a radon mitigation system.
3. Air Pollution
While one of the greatest things about Colorado is the wide open spaces, air quality is still a concern. The American Lung Association grades various cities on ozone levels and particle pollution. Of the 19 counties reporting ozone levels in Colorado in 2023, 11 failed on ozone levels, and 5 of 13 counties received failing grades for particle pollution. Learn more.
Exposure to air pollution throughout your lifetime can damage DNA. This damage can result in the development of cancer later in life.
Depending on where you live and work, you may be unable to avoid air pollution fully. On hot days, especially if there are wildfires, the ozone levels will go up significantly, reducing air quality. You should also consider possible indoor air pollution caused by burning petroleum-based candles and using products such as paint or glue. Try to use these products in an outdoor or well-ventilated area. And when possible, install a HEPA air filter in your home to clean particles from the air.
4. Chemicals that Can Lead to Lung Cancer
Certain cancer-causing chemicals, called carcinogens, can lead to lung cancer when inhaled or consumed. The two most common are such as benzene and asbestos. When continuously exposed, these cancer-causing agents can cause the DNA of your lungs’ cells to mutate and form a tumor. These harmful substances can remain in your system for quite a while, so it’s best to do what you can to avoid contact with them. If you were exposed earlier in your lifetime, you should talk to your doctor so they can monitor you more closely for signs of lung cancer.
5. Genetic Changes
There are some genetic mutations passed down from parents to their children that can lead to lung cancer. There are also somatic gene mutations, or mutations that happen over the course of your lifetime. These changes occur more often and quicker from smoking, but they can happen if you don’t smoke, too.
Researchers have found specific genes that are more likely to mutate over the course of your lifetime. However, you may have no idea until cancer develops. Tests are being developed to help you find out if one of these lung cancer-causing genetic mutations exists so you can be monitored more closely.
Is Lung Cancer Screening An Option?
Lung cancer screening, which involves a low-dose chest CT scan, is currently only recommended for those who have a history of smoking. The best thing you can do for yourself as a non-smoker is to be mindful of the symptoms associated with lung cancer and what steps you can take to lower your risk of developing the disease.
Lung Cancer Symptoms Among People Who Never Smoked
Even as a non-smoker, you should be aware of lung cancer symptoms. Coughing and shortness of breath, without a known cause, such as the flu or pneumonia, are common symptoms of lung cancer among non-smokers and are often caused by pulmonary fibrosis, a condition where scar tissue forms on and around your lungs. If you are experiencing these symptoms without a fever or other accompanying symptoms, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician, who will listen to your lungs and may recommend some imaging tests to see if there is a cause for concern.
Lowering Your Risk of Developing Lung Cancer
It's important to note that lowering your risk levels does not guarantee that you won't develop lung cancer or any other type of cancer. However, you can reduce your risks by making healthy lifestyle choices, maintaining a healthy weight, monitoring your home for radon, and avoiding secondhand smoke or other cancer-causing chemicals as much as possible.
Lung Cancer Care for Patients Located in Colorado
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with lung cancer, the lung cancer doctors at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers are available for a consultation. We have locations in Colorado, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and throughout the Front Range.