Nonsmokers can get lung cancer

When my grandmother died of lung cancer I was too young to understand what was going on. All I really knew was that Grandma, who'd been a smoker though she'd quit years before, was sick, and that her illness was making her lose the weight she'd never been able to keep off before.

Then my boyfriend Max's father got diagnosed with the same disease. I was in my early twenties and understood that the sound of his constant hacking cough meant Mr. J. was slowly suffocating to death. I knew I was watching him die.

But despite all the bruhaha about second-hand smoke being bad for you, I never really understood that nonsmokers could get lung cancer until I saw the cover of People Magazine about a year ago. On it was a gorgeous picture of Dana Reeve, Christopher Reeve's energetic, optimistic, and charismatic widow.

Dana Reeve died of lung cancer. She was 44 years old. And a nonsmoker.

You don't have to have smoked one cigarette in your life to die of lung cancer. Cancer doesn't choose its victims fairly.

My friend Elizabeth found this out the hard way. When she was 27 her 58-year-old mother had a persistent cough. Since she didn't smoke, the doctors didn't take it seriously and thought she just had a bad cold.

"A doctor told us that she had a form of lung cancer that non-smokers get and I recall thinking 'non-smokers get lung cancer?'" Elizabeth told me over email.

the time the doctors diagnosed it, the cancer had spread to her brain. She died less than four months later, of complications from radiation.

Not only do nonsmokers &

especially nonsmoking women &

get lung cancer, lung cancer kills more women every year than every "women's" cancer (breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer) combined.

According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, killing an estimated 160,440 people a year, 10 to 15 percent of whom are nonsmokers.

Although lung cancer is most commonly caused by smoking, there are several other known causes, including radon &

the odorless gas which has been found in the basements of homes in every state in America. Other causes of lung cancer include exposure to asbestos, uranium, second-hand smoke, and other carcinogens.

I guess if you smoke, like my new boxing buddy Neil, on some distant level you understand you're running a risk. But to people who've never smoked, it's the image of a healthy nonsmoking lung cancer victim &

like Dana Reeve or Elizabeth's mom &

that's so frightening.

Retired biochemist and Ashland-resident Paul Buck told me in an interview last year that we all need to pay more attention to our lungs, and do more aerobic exercise to keep them healthy.

"When you breathe out the body uses the lungs to get rid of 2,000 toxic compounds with every breath," Buck said. "Urinating gets rid of 1,000 and defecating only 800. So why don't we pay more attention to the lungs?"

I think about my Grandmother and Max's dad a lot. But somehow nonsmoker's lung cancer seems worse. "Every time anyone asks me how my mother died""then and still today &

I say 'she had lung cancer' and I always add 'she didn't smoke,'" says Elizabeth.

"I feel like I have to tell people that she didn't cause it through her own bad habit, I guess People are always so surprised to hear someone who didn't smoke died of lung cancer. A lot of them will say 'did her husband smoke?' or 'how'd she get it?' There's still such a lack of information out there about this."

Ashland resident is the nonsmoking editor of the award-winning anthology "Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love" (Seal Press), and the author of the award-winning book "Why Babies Do That: Baffling Baby Behavior Explained" (Willow Creek Press).

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