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Health & Exercise Forum

Lung Cancer Risk for Non-Smokers

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Feb 6, 2012

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumFebruary is National Cancer Prevention Month! In view of this, I thought it would be appropriate to raise the level of consciousness about nonsmokers and lung cancer. Nonsmoking women are at greater risk for lung cancer than nonsmoking men. This issue received great national attention several years ago when Dana Reeve, wife of former superman Christopher Reeve, died from lung cancer. Dana represents the 20% of women with lung cancer who have NEVER smoked while 8% of men with lung cancer are nonsmokers. However, make no mistake, smoking increases your risk of lung cancer roughly 20-30 times according to the current research.

Cause of Cancer in Nonsmokers

There are many theories why nonsmokers develop lung cancer. Dr. Norman Edelman, from the American Lung Association, states that one reason nonsmoking women are more like to develop lung cancer is that more nonsmoking women in the United States live with men who smoke than the reverse. Therefore, if the man quits smoking, he is improving the health of two people, not one. Dr. Edelman believes that secondhand smoke is the number one reason nonsmokers develop lung cancer.

In addition to secondhand smoke, other potential causes of lung cancer in nonsmokers are: air pollution, radon exposure, and asbestos exposure. However, one theory that is recently receiving significant attention as a cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers is the “lung cancer gene” according to a Japanese study in the October 2006 journal of Chest. This study has several alarming findings: having a parent or sibling with lung cancer doubles a person’s risk, the risk of inherited lung cancer is significantly higher in women, and family history of lung cancer is related only to lung cancer, not other kinds of cancer.

Lung Cancer Symptoms (WebMD)

  • Chronic Cough
  • Chronic chest, shoulder or back pain that increases with deep breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness, wheezing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Swelling in neck and face
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Appetite and weight loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Persistent infections or pneumonia
  • Clubbing of fingers and toes


While you can’t change your family history, you can take other proactive measures to prevent lung cancer. One, DO NOT SMOKE or QUIT SMOKING if you do! There are many good smoking cessation programs and medicines available. Two, AVOID SECONDHAND SMOKE! Be aware and avoid environmental hazards such as radon exposure. Get a radon test kit for your home or office. If you live or work in an older building, get it checked for asbestos. Have it secured or removed professionally. Live a healthy lifestyle. Eat well and exercise regularly.


Some simple suggestions for beginning an exercise program are:

    • Get your physicians approval
    • Consult with a medical professional to set up a program for your individual needs
    • Diaphramatic Deep Breathing –inhale deeply through your nose as much as possible. Place your hands on your belly to feel the air expand your diaphragm and fill your lungs. Hold your breath for 1-2 seconds and slowly exhale through pursed lips over 8-10 seconds.
      • Buy good running sneakers – not walking shoes
      • Long term goal if possible - to exercise 3-5 times per week for 20-30 minutes
      • Walk, Treadmill, Exercise Bike
      • Begin 3-5 minutes and add 1-2 minutes each session
      • Walk in a mall if it is too hot or too cold
      • Use light dumbbells, sandbag weights (1-2 pounds), and resisted bands
      • Begin with 3-5 repetitions and add 1-2 reps each session
      • Alternate weight training days with walking days

** Contributions from: Dr. Gregory Cali, pulmonologist, Dunmore, PA

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Keep moving, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!” in The Scranton Times-Tribune.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate clinical professor of medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, PA.