How can I reduce my risk of lung cancer if I'm a nonsmoker?

Don't ever start smoking. Avoid circumstances where you might be exposed to secondhand smoke, like from a spouse or a family member that's a smoker.

Then, most importantly, follow up on any type of clinical symptom. A persistent cough that doesn't go away is not something that should be ignored. A lot of the symptoms that are indicators of an underlying problem like lung cancer are very common symptoms that all of us get at some point in our lifetimes. Having a little pain in the chest or shortness of breath or cough are common symptoms, but those are the symptoms of lung cancer.

If you are exposed to radon or other particles or arsenic or radiation, that may increase your risk. Also, over 90 percent of people with lung cancer have been smokers.

Unfortunately there is a higher incidence of young females having lung cancer who have never smoked in their life so anybody can get lung cancer and also it can spread from other cancers but the most common cause of lung cancer is tobacco.

Dr. Raja M. Flores, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

In 15 to 20 percent of lung cancer cases, smoking played no role. In this video, Raja Flores, MD, thoracic surgeon at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, discusses these rare cases, which often affect women.

Dr. Daniel A. Nader, DO
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

As many as 20-30 percent of lung cancers can occur in non-smokers. There may be a variety of reasons why this occurs. Some of it may be related to occupational exposure, radon gas and secondhand smoke. There may be genetic predisposition to developing lung cancer in some non-smokers. The frequency of lung cancer in non-smoking women seems to be increasing.

Even nonsmokers can get lung cancer. In fact, just being exposed to second half smoke poses as a risk factor, so try to avoid situations where you are exposed to smoke.

The sad truth is that anyone can get lung cancer, even nonsmokers. Up to 20 percent of those who die from lung cancer each year are not smokers, nor have they ever used tobacco in any other form. That's between 16,000-24,000 Americans a year, according to the American Cancer Society.

And lung cancer is on the rise among nonsmoking women. If placed into its own category, lung cancer among nonsmokers would rank among the top 10 deadly cancers in the United States. In nonsmokers, lung cancers tend to occur at younger ages. They often have certain genetic traits that set them apart from tumors found in smokers, too.

If you're a nonsmoker, you can reduce your risk of lung cancer by watching out for these causes and working hard to limit or eliminate your exposure to them:

  • Outdoor air pollution: Diesel engine exhaust, solvents, metals, dust and particulate matter (a mixture of tiny solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air) are bad for your lungs.
  • Secondhand smoke: It's not your imagination that being around a smoker irritates your airways. In fact, secondhand smoke has instantaneous dangerous effects on your heart and blood vessels. It is dangerous even at low levels. And it's not only cigarettes that are harmful. It is smoke from any tobacco product. One large cigar produces as much smoke as an entire pack of cigarettes.
  • Exposure to radon gas: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. The risk is highest if you've lived for many years in a house contaminated by radon. Since you can't see or smell radon gas, testing for it is the only way to know if it is in your home. Although it appears naturally in harmless amounts outdoors, radon can become more harmful in homes that are built on soil containing natural uranium deposits.
  • Workplace chemicals: Asbestos and diesel exhaust, when present, can increase your risk of lung cancer.
  • Gene mutations. Some genes lose their ability to suppress tumors. Other times, DNA mutations can raise a person's risk of lung cancer. Genetic changes can be acquired, rather than passed down through families (inherited).

Being aware of your risk factors is the first step in preventing lung cancer.

Another tip? Eat a healthy diet, filled with all the colors of the rainbow. Research has indicated that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—especially cruciferous ones, like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower—may help protect against lung cancer for both smokers and nonsmokers.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Nonsmokers can get lung cancer, but their risk is much lower than that of smokers. One study looked at the results of several large studies and found that about 19 percent of all women diagnosed with lung cancer had never smoked, and about 9 percent of men diagnosed with lung cancer did not smoke.

The percentages may be shocking but they are still a minority. Your risk of lung cancer is highest if you smoke. The best way to lower your risk of lung cancer is to never take a drag of a cigarette.

About 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women diagnosed with lung cancer are nonsmokers. Nonsmokers with lung cancer tend to respond better to a new generation of chemotherapy drugs, according to Dr. Alan Sandler of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. The best way to reduce your risk is to continue not to smoke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.