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Non-Smokers with Lung Cancer Get Double Whammy

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By W. Gifford-Jones

Special to The Epoch Times Nov 09, 2005

Smoker.jpg Jim Ross/Getty Images

SEAN PENN: Smokers aren’t the only ones who get lung cancer.

High-resolution image (3000 x 2004 px, 300 dpi) An interesting psychological reaction happens to non-smokers who develop lung cancer. It occurs over and over again. When told someone has breast cancer friends often say, “How sad. Is there anything we can do to help?” But when informed that a person has lung cancer, the first response is, “Was he or she a smoker?” The remark often stigmatizes non-smokers afflicted with this disease.

Dana Reeves, the widow of the late Christopher Reeves, who has never smoked, recently announced she has been diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s a frightful tragedy for a young woman who dedicated so many years to help her stricken husband. But her plight has made everyone aware that non-smokers develop lung cancer more often than suspected.

Dana’s announcement came just two days after Peter Jennings, ABC News anchor, died of lung cancer. Unfortunately, Jennings was a big-time smoker early in life, gave it up but temporarily started again during the weeks of reporting the 9/11 disaster.

Despite their different smoking histories, Dana Reeves and Peter Jennings shared the most common and deadliest cancer in the world. This year in North America about 100,000 men and 80,000 women will die of this disease. Of this number 10 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women have never smoked. Today lung cancer kills more women than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined.

There’s no good news about lung cancer. Even if confined to the lung, only 49 percent of victims are alive in five years. And if the tumor has already metastasized a mere two percent survive that long.

The problem is there’s no way to diagnose early lung cancer. X-rays, CT scans and MRIs only detect a malignancy when it has already been present for several years.

Why non-smokers develop this malignancy is still not known. Some researchers speculate it’s more prone to develop in those whose lungs have been scarred by recurring bouts of pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses. Others say that genetics and atmospheric exposure to a variety of products may be responsible.

For instance, a Swedish study found an increase in lung cancer in those exposed to residential radon gas, a breakdown product of uranium. However, other studies failed to show this linkage.

The great medical frustration is that nothing known could have prevented Dana Reeves from developing this malignancy.

But the greater frustration is that we can prevent lung cancer in 90 percent of men and 80 percent of women. All it takes is the cessation of smoking or better still avoidance in the first place.

ABC network reports a huge unexpected response from Jennings’ fans that they are now committed to stopping smoking. I hope the effect lasts.

Fortunately, smokers do not have to wait years for good things to happen. Within minutes of a final cigarette, the body begins a series of recuperative changes that continues for years. For instance, 20 minutes after a cigarette blood pressure falls, heart rate drops and the temperature of hands and feet increase to normal.

Eight hours later, carbon monoxide level in the blood drops to normal and oxygen level increases to normal. Within 24 hours, the chance of a heart attack decreases. And after 48 hours, nerve endings start working again and the ability to smell and taste is enhanced. During three months after cessation circulation improves, walking becomes easier and lung function increases up the 30 percent. Smokers also notice that within one to nine months there’s less coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue, shortness of breath and energy increases.

Just one year later the risk of coronary attack has been decreased by an amazing 50 percent. The five-year lung cancer death rate for a one-pack-a-day smoker decreases almost by half and in 10 years the lung malignancy rate is similar to that of a non-smoker. Faced by such overwhelming benefits how can any sane person not strive to toss away cigarettes?

I’ll miss Peter Jennings’ nightly broadcast as I’ve missed other friends who have needlessly died from this addiction. Surely, there’s never been a better time to discuss ways of stopping smoking with your doctor.

Dr. W. Gifford Jones is a medical journalist with a clinic in Toronto.

Questions or comments: docgiff@sympatico.ca

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