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Non-smokers Can Get Lung Cancer, Too: Important Facts to Know

Lung cancer does not only happen to smokers. Non-smokers are also at risk for lung cancer. In addition to second-hand smoke, non-smokers can get lung cancer from other contributing factors such as asbestos, radon and air pollution. Luckily, there are innovations in screenings and treatments that are moving the field of lung cancer forward and improving patient outcomes.

Table of contents:

  • How common is it for non-smokers to get lung cancer?

  • What are the biggest risk factors for lung cancer?

  • How do you lower your risk of lung cancer?

  • What are the signs and symptoms of lung cancer?

  • How is lung cancer diagnosed?

  • How is lung cancer treated?

  • Where can I learn more?

How often do non-smokers get lung cancer?

About 10 to 15% of lung cancer diagnoses occur in people who’ve never smoked or used tobacco products, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The American Cancer Society has found that upwards of 20% of lung cancer deaths occur in non-smokers.

What are the biggest risk factors for lung cancer?


Smoking remains the biggest risk factor for lung cancer. When someone inhales smoke, the toxins in that smoke damage the cells that line the lungs. This can damage the tissue immediately. With enough time and exposure, that damage accumulates and may make those cells behave abnormally and become cancerous.

Radon gas

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, and it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in all people. While radon – which is a naturally occurring gas – doesn’t pose a danger when we encounter it in small levels outside, it can become dangerous when it collects indoors. (Learn how to protect yourself and your family from unhealthy levels of radon.)

Second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke exposure is also called involuntary smoking. This is because nicotine and toxic chemicals enter the lungs of people who are nearby, inhaling the smoke. At least 70 chemicals found in second-hand smoke can cause cancer. Second-hand smoke includes two elements: mainstream smoke (which is the smoke exhaled by a person as they smoke) and sidestream smoke (which emits from the end of the cigarette, pipe or cigar). The American Cancer Society reports that about 7,000 adults die each year as a result of inhaling second-hand smoke.

Exposure to cancer-causing chemicals

Cancer-causing agents – called carcinogens – increase our risk of cancer when we’re exposed to them. Some of the most common carcinogens are:

  1. Asbestos: This chemical was commonly used in construction (in roofing and insulation materials, for example), car making (in clutch pads and brake shoes) and in paint. While the EPA banned new uses of asbestos in 1989, asbestos can still be found in older homes, workplaces and products. While there are low levels of asbestos found in the air, water and soil that don’t pose much risk, people who encounter higher levels of asbestos do have an increased risk of lung cancer.

  2. Diesel exhaust: Diesel fuel powers many large engines, including those on ships, generators, trucks, farm equipment and even some cars. People who are exposed to diesel fumes – who may work or live near an area or jobsite with lots of diesel exhaust – face a higher risk of lung cancer.

  3. Outdoor air pollution: Diesel exhaust isn’t the only chemical in the air that can increase the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to cancer-causing particles can come from industrial plants powered by coal and even forest fires. While the Clean Air Act has helped eliminate some of these particles from the air, many remain. To reduce the cancer risk that air pollution poses, check the air quality index in your area and limit outside activities during the days when pollution levels are high.

How do you lower your risk of lung cancer?

Avoid tobacco exposure

If you’ve never smoked, don’t start. If you are a current smoker, stop now. (Learn more about smoking cessation from the CDC.) Also, avoid second-hand smoke. By simply being present while others smoke, you inhale up to 20 different cancer-causing chemicals that increase your risk of lung cancer.

Get screened

Nearly half of lung cancer diagnoses occur at advanced stages when the prognosis can be poor. Too many people don’t know that effective screening for lung cancer is available. The recommendations for lung cancer screenings were updated in the spring of 2021, and they now recommend screenings for people who meet all of the following criteria:

  • Adults aged 50 to 80

  • Have a 20 pack-year smoking history

  • Currently smoke or quit smoking within past 15 years

What is a pack-year smoking history?

A “pack-year” describes how much a person has smoked over time. One pack equals 20 cigarettes, and some common calculations are below:

  • One pack-year means a person smoked one pack a day for a year

  • A five pack-year means a person smoked half a pack a day for ten years

  • A twenty pack-year means a person smoked either a pack a day for twenty years or two packs a day for ten years

What are the signs and symptoms of lung cancer?

Often, no symptoms of lung cancer develop until advanced stages, which makes lung cancer screening very important for those at higher risk levels. When symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Persistent cough and possibly coughing up blood

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Bone pain

  • Weight loss

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Lung cancer can be diagnosed in several ways, including:

  • Imaging tests, such as X-rays or CT scans

  • Biopsy, which tests a sample of tissue collected from the lung

  • Sputum cytology, which tests sputum produced during a cough

How is lung cancer treated?

Lung cancer has had some of the most exciting innovations and advancements in treatments in the past decade – and more advancements occur all the time. If you have questions about lung cancer treatment, talk to an oncologist for the latest information. Some treatment options include:

  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-powered beams to kill cancer cells. This may be used on its own or it may be used alongside chemotherapy or before or after surgery.

  • Chemotherapy, which uses medications – either oral or intravenous (inserted through a vein) – to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used on its own, or it may be used with radiation and surgery as part of a larger treatment plan.

  • Targeted drug therapy, which uses genetic markers to identify a tumor that can be matched to the most effective drug for that particular tumor. Targeted treatments, for now, are only available for tumors that have certain genetic markers.

  • Immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. While cancer often can hide tumor cells from the immune system, immunotherapy prevents that from happening.

Where can I learn more?

Whether you’re worried about your lung cancer risk or facing a diagnosis, AnMed Health is here to help you. The lung cancer team at AnMed Health offers advanced diagnostic and treatment options that offer each patient a personalized treatment option based on the latest information and tools in the field. To learn more, visit

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