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Sharp Health News

When lung cancer happens to a nonsmoker

Sept. 9, 2021

When lung cancer happens to a nonsmoker

Sunny Golden had a slight cough bothering her off and on. She mentioned it at her regular doctor visits, but at the time, it didn’t seem important. A nonsmoker and otherwise healthy, she was treated for possible allergies or asthma. When those treatments didn’t work, her doctor ordered an endoscopy of her upper airway. To everyone’s dismay, cancer was found in both of her lungs.

“Up until then, I thought lung cancer was something only smokers got,” she says. Yet, in September 2014, Golden was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer — and she had never smoked a day in her life.

Golden is not alone, and for reasons that remain unclear, lung cancer among nonsmokers is on the rise. Two studies found that lung cancer rates among nonsmokers more than doubled between 2008 and 2014. Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

“People who don’t smoke can get lung cancer,” says Dr. Reema Batra, a board-certified oncologist and hematologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “We know that some environmental factors play a role. For example, exposure to secondhand smoke and radon gas are two known causes.”

Cancer-causing agents such as asbestos are also harmful, and air pollution has long been known to contribute to lung cancer. In some instances, gene mutations are a cause.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that up to 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer don't smoke or use any other form of tobacco. That translates to 16,000 to 24,000 individuals every year.

“Our bodies have a lot of lung reserve, so people may have lung cancer, but no symptoms until it affects a vascular structure, or if it starts to impede breathing,” says Dr. Batra. “If you have a cough lasting more than two to three weeks, see your doctor. And if you see any blood, get checked as soon as possible.”

For nonsmokers, the emotional toll of the disease presents unique challenges. The ACS notes that 50 years ago, lung cancer became the first health risk linked to smoking. And while anti-smoking campaigns have saved hundreds of lives, it changed the public’s view about people who smoke.

Because of a lack of understanding that lung cancer has other causes — and a lack of awareness about addiction — there’s a stigma attached that has left many patients feeling blamed for their own disease, whether they smoked or not.

Golden says, “People just assumed I smoked. I’d get asked, ‘How long did you smoke?’ It didn’t make me feel very good.”

“Smoking is extremely addicting,” says Dr. Batra. “More awareness, counseling and talking to patients and loved ones is needed to educate and build support.”

No longer in treatment, Golden is still monitored. “I go in every three months for a PET scan and my last several have been good. But as a cancer patient, you learn that things can change in a heartbeat.”

Nonetheless, Golden remains positive and doesn’t let cancer hold her back. “I get short on breath sometimes, when before I didn’t, but I still do the things that I love.”

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Reema Batra about lung or other types of cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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