Kathy Griffin shocked fans on Monday after announcing she has been diagnosed with lung cancer and would undergoing surgery to have part of her lungs removed.
“The doctors are very optimistic as it is stage one and contained to my left lung,” Griffin, 60, shared in a statement on social media.
But the comedian noted in her announcement that she was diagnosed with the disease “even though I’ve never smoked.”
Experts warn that people who do not smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products are at risk of developing lung cancer. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 40,000 lung cancers each year « happen in people who never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. »
If you’re a nonsmoker, here’s what you need to know about lung cancer risks:
Can I get lung cancer if I’ve never smoked?
Yes, but developing the disease is significantly less likely than if you do smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products.
Smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than nonsmokers, according to the CDC.
But Dr. David Carbone, director of the James Thoracic Oncology Center at Ohio State University, told USA TODAY that people who do not smoke tobacco products can still be at risk of developing lung cancer.
« Among lung cancer circles, what we say is if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer, » he said.
Ahmedin Jemal, the American Cancer Society’s senior vice president of surveillance and health equity science, said that exposure to secondhand smoke, or breathing in smoke from other people’s use of tobacco products, is « one of the leading causes » of lung cancer among nonsmokers.
He added that exposure to substances like radon, a naturally occurring gas that can get trapped in houses and buildings, and asbestos are also some of the most frequent causes of lung cancer among nonsmokers.
Like other cancers, a family history of the disease also means that a person who does not smoke could develop lung cancer.
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How rare is it to get lung cancer if you’ve never smoked?
According to the CDC, approximately 10% to 20% of lung cancers each year, or up to 40,000 lung cancers, occur in people who have never smoked or who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.
Of those annual cases, experts say that secondhand smoke exposure contributes to about 7,300 lung cancer diagnoses, while radon contributes to approximately 2,900.
« Any kinds of toxicities can cause this, any kinds of toxicities that affect the DNA. So we think of smoking because that is a lot of toxicity right on the surface, » Dr. Jacob Sands, a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told USA TODAY.
« But at the same time there are also alterations that can just happen, » he said.
What are the treatment options for lung cancer?
Some patients, like Griffin, may undergo surgery to remove a section of the lung, an entire lobe or the organ itself. Others with lung cancer may undergo treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
But multiple physicians told USA TODAY that targeted therapy, which uses drugs to target specific mutations in cancer cells, has also shown promising results for nonsmokers with lung cancer.
« The treatments have really changed dramatically from just the chemotherapy and radiation days, » Carbone said.
Is lung removal common?
Removing sections of the lung, like Griffin’s surgery, is common among patients with early stages of lung cancer, multiple physicians told USA TODAY.
« You can just what we call ‘wedge’ out the tumor, but there have been studies that showed that the relapse rate for that surgery is higher than if you take the entire lobe, » Carbone said, adding that physicians may also remove lymph nodes to determine if the cancer has spread.
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What are the early signs of lung cancer among non-smokers?
The symptoms of lung cancer are the same for people who smoke tobacco products and people who don’t, according to the CDC.
Symptoms vary from patient to patient, but they generally include feeling tired regularly, coughing frequently, coughing up blood, having chest pain and experiencing wheezing and shortness of breath.
Sands noted that these symptoms can pose a unique challenge to patients who do not smoke because shortness of breath and coughing show up in a wide variety of conditions. He also said that most people who get lung cancer do not have symptoms until it has spread to other parts of their body.
« Somebody who doesn’t have any kind of lung diagnosis to now get a cough or some shortness of breath, that really requires some evaluation, » Sands warned. « They absolutely should be seeing a doctor about that and get some evaluation. In most cases, it won’t be lung cancer, but the possibility exists. «