Reston Hospital Center - November 26, 2018

The average age of someone diagnosed with lung cancer is 70, but a new group of young cancer victims has emerged—non-smokers under 40. This group of otherwise healthy young adults face their first challenge before diagnosis. Their symptoms are often ignored or mistaken for something else so the cancer grows, unchecked. These symptoms may include:

  • A persistent or chronic cough that gets worse over time
  • Hoarseness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Having blood in your sputum when you cough

Other symptoms more commonly appear after the lung cancer has spread. These include:

  • Headaches
  • Bone, back pain, or fractures
  • Swelling of the neck and face
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • New inability to control the bladder or bowel
  • Seizure activity, specifically weakness or numbness
  • Unexplained clotting problems resulting in heart attack or stroke

Causes of Lung Cancer in Non-smokers

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer patients in the U.S. have never smoked. Instead, their cancers typically can be attributed to one of five causes:

  • Radon gas: this naturally occurring gas is harmless in small amounts, but can become concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Since it can’t be seen or smelled, families often live in the homes for years, or even decades, without knowing the risks.
  • Cancer-causing agents at work, like asbestos or diesel exhaust
  • Second-and third-hand smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Gene mutations

This non-smoker group represents 2 to 3 percent of the more than 228,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer each year who are younger than 40. Their cancer is emerging as its own sub-type of lung cancer, yet medical researchers do not have a clear answer on what causes the cancer to develop in the first place. Some researchers suspect a hereditary base, like breast or colon cancer. Others suspect a genetic susceptibility combined with other risk factors, such as exposure to radon or second or third-hand smoke. Although answers are still years away, studies are being conducted to determine whether lung cancer in young patients harbors a unique spectrum of genetic mutations that could be a potential predictor as well as a target for treatment.

Until science catches up with diagnostics, both doctors and the public need to know: Anyone with lungs is at risk for lung cancer. Take our lung cancer risk assessment below to learn more about your risk.