Nonsmokers can get lung cancer, too. Even if you don’t smoke and your family has no history of lung cancer, you could still be at risk. In the United States, approximately 1 in 10 men, and 1 in 5 women, with lung cancer are people who have never smoked.4 In fact, 16,000 to 24,000 people who have never smoked die from lung cancer every year.5 So it is important for nonsmokers to take care of their health and watch out for symptoms of lung cancer.

Causes of Lung Cancer, other than Smoking

Besides smoking, other possible causes of lung cancer are radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the ground), secondhand smoke, air pollution, asbestos, and gene mutations.

What are Gene Mutations?

A mutation is a random change in a person’s genes. A mutation might be harmless or it might lead to a disease. Several mutations have been now identified to cause lung cancer, and the most common ones are called EGFR and ALK.

EGFR (Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor)

EGFR is the most common lung cancer mutation. When EGFR is present, cancer cells grow and multiply very quickly. EGFR mutations can be found in about 50% of Asian lung cancer patients, compared to 10-15% in the general population. 76 And in Asian lung cancer patients who never smoked, EGFR mutations are found 60% of the time.7 So Asians, whether they are smokers or non-smokers, are at special risk for lung cancer because they have a higher chance of having the EGFR mutation that causes lung cancer.

ALK (Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase)

The ALK mutation also leads to cell growth and tumor survival. However, this type of mutation is rarer than EGFR - and happens in about 2-7% of all lung cancer patients, including Asians.8 This mutation is also most often seen in non-smokers (or light smokers).


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Key Facts about Lung Cancer Mutations:

  • Lung cancer mutations are NOT inherited from your parents, but rather they developed in your body sometime after birth.
  • The type of lung cancer caused by a mutation is a different type of lung cancer that is caused by smoking.
  • Smokers can also have EGFR and ALK mutations, but they end up with 2 different types of lung cancers.

How can I protect myself, or my loved ones, from lung cancer if I don’t smoke?

Unfortunately, current lung cancer screening guidelines apply only to heavy smokers or ex-smokers. Currently, there are no genetic tests or blood tests to screen for lung cancer mutations with the hopes of catching lung cancer early in nonsmokers. So if you are a nonsmoker, you must be vigilant about your health. Make sure to go for annual physical exams with your doctor, and tell your doctor if you have any possible lung cancer symptoms, especially if you are Asian or have a family history of cancer.

Since lung cancer screenings for heavy smokers and past smokers is covered by health insurance and even offered free at certain medical offices, it is very important for smokers and former smokers to ask their doctors to be screened for lung cancer. The goal of lung cancer screening is to catch lung cancer in the early stages, which is the best chance for curing lung cancer.

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