I’ve never smoked, so why do I have lung cancer?

According to Cancer Research, while overall lung cancer incidence has decreased by 9 per cent in the UK since the early 1990s, cases in women have risen by a third (32 per cent). “Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, so 20 per cent of that is still a huge problem,” says Prof Sanjay Popat, a consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden Hospital. “We see more lung cancer in people who have never smoked than we see pancreatic cancers.” (The risk of pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among smokers compared to those who have never smoked.)

Although tobacco use is still the most significant risk factor (linked to 72 per cent of UK lung cancer cases), according to the World Health Organisation, 25 per cent of lung cancer cases globally occur in never-smokers. Many of these patients are women aged 50 and under, and they are often diagnosed at Stage 4, when the cancer has already spread and cannot be cured. 

“We do see a lot more women with this type of lung cancer than we do men, and we’re not sure why,” says Popat. “Although, one thing we are seeing is an association with air pollution.” 

A recent study led by Cancer Research-funded scientists at University College London and the Francis Crick Institute showed for the first time that air pollution can cause cancer in non-smokers.  Although tobacco use is still the most significant risk factor. 

Alix Burnard, from Berkshire, was 28 and also a never-smoker when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. “It started in March 2021 with a cough, and a month later, I had painful, swollen lymph nodes in my neck,” she says. 

“That’s when I contacted my doctor. After a few rounds of antibiotics, I wasn’t getting any better, so I had an X-ray. But my cancer didn’t look like cancer. It wasn’t until the end of May when I was so breathless I couldn’t talk and had lost 10kg that I was sent to hospital and diagnosed.”

“My old life stopped at cancer, in terms of my career, my health and my hobbies,” she says. “It feels like there’s an element of unfairness; I’ve always tried to live well. I had my whole life ahead of me and cancer has changed all that. I lost my health and a lot of my identity.” 

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