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Lung Cancer Differences in Non-Smokers

You don’t smoke, and you’ve never smoked in your life – but you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer. How did this happen? How is it possible? It’s more common than you might think, and many patients treated for lung cancer at Regional Cancer Care Associates have never smoked. Roughly 15% of all lung cancer diagnoses are made in non-smokers, and about 20% of lung cancers in women involve patients who never smoked.

How Lung Cancer Develops

Smoking cigarettes damages the cells found within the lining of the lungs, so when smokers are diagnosed with lung cancer, it’s usually not a surprise. The route of disease development, however, is different for non-smokers. For one, non-smokers with lung cancer may have faults within the DNA of their lung cells, which causes the cells to become abnormal, divide out of control, and form a tumor. Several risk factors also increase the non-smoker’s risk for lung cancer, including:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Family history of lung cancer
  • Secondhand smoke, which is linked to about 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in Americans
  • Exposure to radon gas, which can be found in houses, condominiums, apartment buildings, and more
  • Exposure to the asbestos found on several types of job sites
  • Inhaling aerosolized oils typically used in wok cooking

Generally speaking, lung cancer is classified as either small cell or non-small cell. More than 50% of smokers with lung cancer are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancers, with the most common type being squamous cell lung cancer. But non-small cell lung cancer also accounts for most cases in non-smokers. Adenocarcinoma, a different non-small cell lung cancer, is most common among patients who have never smoked. Bronchoalveolar carcinoma (BAC), a subtype of adenocarcinoma, is also common among non-smokers.

Lung Cancer Symptoms: Not Just a Cold

Regardless of whether the patient is a past or current smoker or has never smoked, all types of lung cancer share common symptoms. The most frequently occurring symptoms include:

  • Hoarse voice
  • New, persistent cough
  • Chest, back, or shoulder pain
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Harsh sounds when breathing
  • Recurring infections, like pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Coughing up blood or finding blood in phlegm or mucus

When non-smokers experience these symptoms, it’s easy to blame a cold or respiratory infection at first. Unfortunately, dismissing symptoms means that lung cancer can often go undetected, allowing the disease to advance to a later stage. And, as with most types of cancer, more advanced stages are more difficult to treat. This is especially true for lung cancer, as data shows that only 14% of patients with more-advanced tumors will survive. That’s why it’s so important to consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, especially if they do not resolve after treatment by your physician.  

RCCA: Leaders in Lung Cancer Care

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with lung cancer or have noticed its symptoms, trust your care to the oncologists at Regional Cancer Care Associates. To learn more, contact one of our 30 locations across Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey today.

we are here for you

For more information or to schedule an appointment,
call 844-346-7222. You can also schedule an appointment by calling the RCCA location nearest you.


Regional Cancer Care Associates is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM); a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.