Twelve lung cancer symptoms found in people who’ve never smoked in their life

By Staff 6 Min Read

Scientists have found that nonsmokers, who comprise approximately 20% of lung cancer deaths in the US, face distinct types of lung cancer driven by genetic mutations

Lung cancer – which is often associated with smoking – can in fact pose a significant health hazard even to those who have never touched a cigarette in their life.

While smoking remains the primary cause, other risk factors include exposure to environmental pollutants such as radon gas, secondhand smoke, and occupational hazards. Data from the American Cancer Society showed that about 20% of lung cancer deaths in the US every year are in people who never smoked.

Nonsmokers, defined as individuals who either have never smoked or have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, are susceptible to different types of lung cancer compared to smokers, and scientists today have a better understanding of lung cancer in nonsmokers thanks to recent medical advancements.

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According to scientists at Yale Medicine, it has been discovered that lung cancer in nonsmokers is usually caused by genetic mutations or abnormalities. Dr Anne Chiang, a thoracic medical oncologist at Yale Medicine, said: “We used to think all lung cancers were the same, but now we understand that there are different kinds.”

Most nonsmokers may not exhibit early symptoms of lung cancer, hence it often goes undetected until it metastasises, scientists warn. However, some nonsmokers may show symptoms similar to those in smokers during the early stages of the disease. These symptoms include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss for no reason
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in the face and/or the neck
  • Recurrent lung infections, including pneumonia

Differentiating between smoker and nonsmoker lung cancers is crucial for effective treatment. Scientists have developed personalized treatment options targeting specific molecular changes associated with nonsmoker lung cancer. For instance, nonsmokers are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that tends to grow more slowly and manifests differently under medical imaging.

Dr Daniel Boffa, a thoracic surgeon at Yale Medicine, illustrates the distinction: “If you are a smoker, you can think of your lung as a bag of white marbles, and cancer is like putting a black marble in there. The type of cancer a nonsmoker gets is more like putting in black sand. Instead of a spot or a lump, it’s more like a hazy area. It’s more diffuse.”

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Advancements in genetic testing have revolutionized the treatment of nonsmoker lung cancer. Patients can now undergo testing to identify mutations, which enables doctors to prescribe targeted therapies. Although there are no standardized screening procedures for nonsmokers, it is crucial to be aware of family history and potential environmental exposures.

Early detection remains critical, scientists warn, and it often happens serendipitously during medical imaging for unrelated conditions. Treatment for nonsmoker lung cancer typically involves surgical removal of affected tissue, followed by targeted therapies or chemotherapy depending on the cancer’s stage and aggressiveness.

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