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What are the risk factors for lung cancer in nonsmokers?

Lankenau Medical Center August 11, 2014 General Wellness

It doesn’t have a celebrity spokesperson and a glitzy marketing campaign, but lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States. While cigarette smoking is the most significant risk factor for lung cancer, patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer who have never smoked are left wondering…”Why?”

“Ninety percent of lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking, which in a way is good news, since people can significantly decrease their risk by never smoking or by quitting,” explains Susan Gregory, MD, pulmonologist at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health. “The risk factors for the 10 percent of lung cancer patients who never smoked are more complicated. Exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, exposure to other environmental factors, as well as genetics, can contribute to the development of lung cancer.”

Although the body has a natural defense system to protect the lungs from external pollutants, there are still you can take to maintain lung health and reduce your risk of lung cancer.

Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer and other respiratory conditions, such as COPD or chronic bronchitis. If you are a smoker, whether you’ve been doing it for years or only have a cigarette is social situations, quit immediately. And that goes for other tobacco use too—cigars and smokeless tobacco are just as bad for your cancer risk (especially cancers of the mouth and throat) as cigarettes.

Even if you are not a smoker, try to avoid cigarette smoke. Avoid the temptation to stand outside with friends who are smoking, and try to sit far away from anyone who is smoking at outdoor events. Designate your home and car as smoke-free areas.


According to the CDC, exposure to radon accounts for 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon, a tasteless and odorless gas, comes from rocks and dirt, and can get trapped in houses and buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that all homes be tested for radon, and if positive, a radon elimination system be installed.

Avoid pollutants

Environmental pollutants, including asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust and some forms of silica and chromium, are known to increase the risk of lung cancer. People working around such substances should use proper protective equipment.


Exercise is an important component of good health. Even with a busy schedule, try to carve out some time each day for exercise, even if it's a few laps around the block. However, people with lung disease should avoid outdoor exercise on very hot days, when the air quality may not be good.


Although it hasn't been proven to prevent lung cancer, eating a diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, can enhance overall health and helps keep your weight under control.

Know your risk

Recent studies have shown that screening for lung cancer may be beneficial in patients with increased risk, defined as age between 55–77 years old with at least a 30 pack year history of smoking (one pack per day for 30 years). If these screening qualifications apply to you, talk to your doctor about screening options.

Lung cancer care at Main Line Health

We offer lung cancer screenings at eight convenient locations in the Philadelphia suburbs. A specially trained nurse at each location will make sure your scan is read quickly and guide you through the next steps of your care if needed. For more information, call 484.565.LUNG (484.565.5864) and a nurse navigator will help schedule your screening, including getting a prescription from your primary doctor.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.