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Doctors who treat lung cancer are facing a puzzling trend: every week about 65 Canadians who have never smoked are being told they have cancer in their lungs.

Every week about 65 Canadians who have never smoked are being told they have lung cancer.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, an estimated 22,700 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and 19,300 will die of it.

About 437 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer every week and an average of 371 lung cancer patients die every week.

Smoking has long been understood to be a key risk factor for lung cancer.

But according to information CTV's Avis Favaro received from doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital and the Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre in Toronto, 10 to 15 per cent of new lung cancer cases diagnosed are in people who have never smoked. Many have never been exposed to second-hand smoke.

In Canada, that adds up to 3,500 nonsmokers diagnosed with the disease each year.

Karry Langman is mother who's always tried to live a healthy life. She's never smoked. Yet at age 36, she discovered she had lung cancer.

Her only symptom was a cough that wouldn't go away, first thought to be pneumonia, and then asthma. She was X-rayed only after repeated visits to the doctor. The X-ray confirmed it was cancer.

"It was just a shock," Langman told CTV Newsnet. "It's just disbelief because it's lung cancer and I'm not a candidate for lung cancer."

So how did she get it? No one seems to know.

Genetics, hormones, second-hand smoke, diet and air pollution are all possible factors.

Non-smokers who reside with a smoker have a 24 per cent risk increase for lung cancer compared with other non-smokers. Other possible causes:

If you think breast cancer is the cancer killing most women, you'd be wrong. Lung cancer kills more women -- and men -- every year than any other cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. And research shows that women are approximately 1.5 times more likely to develop lung cancer than men.

"Many of these people are young," said Dr. Natasha Leighl of the Princess Margaret Hospital. "They're women and this is a population that is increasing. In California, they believe the number of people with lung cancer who have never smoked may now be 30 per cent."

Doctors suspect environmental pollution may trigger some cases. In others there may be a genetic link. Many agree the numbers of non-smokers developing long cancer is growing.

The good news is that caught early, lung cancer early is treatable.

In Langman's case, her right lung was removed almost a year ago, and she underwent chemotherapy. Her odds of a cure are more than 70 per cent.

"I feel blessed that the people looking at the X-ray found it and they were able to diagnose it early," said Langman.

Now she wants others to learn that lung cancer doesn't just happen to smokers.

Dana Reeve, the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, died earlier this year. She was a non smoker with lung cancer, which brought some attention to the issue.

But doctors think awareness of the risks for non-smokers is low.

There are a few key things to watch for, said Dr. Sunil Verma at the Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre.

"Symptoms like a cough that won't go away, or phlegm that is different in colour," could be a symptom of lung cancer said Verma. "If you notice blood (in phlegm) or it is changing in colour, that is something to be concerned about."

Doctors want even those who never picked up a cigarette to watch for the following signs:

It pays to be persistent about complaining about such symptoms to your doctor, as Langman was, even if you don't have a risk factor for lung cancer. Because many of the victims are young, nonsmokers who are otherwise healthy, doctors sometimes misdiagnose their ailment as asthma.

A delay in diagnosis gives cancer a chance to spread, said Leighl, and once lung cancer has spread it's difficult to treat and often incurable.

Although quitting smoking decreases the risk of getting lung cancer, it doesn't mean you don't have to worry. Leighl said 70 per cent of diagnosed cases of lung cancer are in former smokers who said they quit 10 or 20 years ago.


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Maybe estrogen, growth hormones in milk cows and beef, chemically altered vegetables, pesticides, etc. Something women do more than men, like working in bars as waitresses (which is not "living" with a smoker), birth control pills (seems the largest number is women in child-bearing years), etc. ?

Many, many questions, not a lot of answers, but I don't think radon would be the only other option as if a woman in a house is exposed to it, so is the man in the house....

Very good article, JC, thank you.

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Just a thought! there are so many possibilities sadly enough. This is why I say that LC is the Breast Cancer of the New Millenium, But of course there is the stigmatism atached to LC so :( people just do not accept this in general.

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