Female Nonsmokers Get More Lung Cancer
Women Who've Never Smoked at Greater Risk Than Nonsmoking Men
Feb. 9, 2007 -- Lung cancer is not solely a smoker's disease -- and women
who have never smoked are more at risk than men, new research confirms.
About 20% of lung cancer cases in women occur in nonsmokers, the research
suggests. In men, the percentage is about 8%.
To put the risk in perspective, a woman with no history of smoking has the
same risk of developing lung cancer as she has of developing cervical cancer,
says lead researcher Heather Wakelee, MD, of Stanford University School of
“People who have never smoked really do represent a substantial minority of
lung cancer patients,” Wakelee tells WebMD. “We need to be working now to
better understand why these cancers occur.”
In the Spotlight
The death of actress and activist Dana Reeve last March put the issue into
the spotlight. Reeve was never a smoker, and her battle with lung cancer made
millions of people aware for the first time that nonsmokers get the
It has been believed that between 10% and 15% of lung cancer cases occur in
people with no smoking history, but Wakelee says there has been little hard
data to back up the figure.
“That is one of the main reasons we did this study,” she says.
Wakelee and colleagues from Stanford and the Northern California Cancer
Center tracked lung cancer incidence and deaths in more than 1 million people
between ages 40 and 79 and living in the United States or Sweden.
They then calculated lung cancer cases in terms of new cases per
The researchers noted that age-adjusted lung cancer rates among current
smokers are roughly 12 to 30 times higher than rates in people who never
But if the numbers are representative of the overall U.S. population, the
inference is that about 8% of lung cancer cases in men and 20% of cases in
women are among never-smokers, study co-author Ellen T. Chang, ScD, tells
The study is published in the Feb. 10 issue of the Journal of Clinical
Why Do Nonsmokers Get Lung Cancer?
It is still not clear if the lung cancer rate among never-smokers is growing
or if the disease is as deadly in never-smokers.
And though there are many theories about why nonsmokers get lung cancer,
little research has been done on the subject.
Air pollution, exposure to radon, and occupational exposure to asbestos have
all been implicated in lung cancer risk. But most experts suspect that
secondhand cigarette smoke exposure is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer
among people who have never smoked.
“In this country, more women who don’t smoke probably live with men who
smoke than the other way around,” the American Lung Association's chief medical
officer, Norman Edelman, MD, tells WebMD.
“If you have a spouse who smokes, it is not only good for their health if
they quit smoking, it is good for yours,” Edelman says.