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Non-Smoking Causes of Lung Cancer

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Non-Smoking Causes of Lung Cancer

Dec 02, 2013

The stigma associated with lung cancer is that it’s a smokers’ disease and they’ve brought it on themselves. While it’s true that 90 percent of lung cancer cases are smoking related, 10 percent come from other causes, and that number is even higher in Utah at 30 percent. Learn about the non-smoking causes of lung cancer from Dr. Shamus Carr at Huntsman Cancer Institute, including occupational, environmental and genetic factors. He’ll also tell you the one thing he thinks everyone should do, whether they smoke or not, to decrease their chance of contracting lung cancer.

Episode Transcript

Host: Did you know even if you're a non-smoker, just because you live in Utah you have an increased chance of getting lung cancer? We're going to talk with Dr. Shamus Carr of Huntsman Cancer Institute about what's causing that coming up next.

Announcer: Interesting, informative, and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.

Host: Lung cancer, what causes it? I think everybody thinks it's only smoking.

Dr. Carr: Well, 90% of patients who get diagnosed with lung cancer, it is related to smoking. However, what's interesting is that there's 10% who do not. More interesting is here in the state of Utah 30% are non-smokers.

Host: Really? What's the cause of that?

Dr. Carr: There's a lot of things that have been proven to be the cause. Radon, which is a colorless, odorless gas which is in the basement of pretty much everybody's home here in the state of Utah, is a risk factor.

Host: Why is it so predominant here?

Dr. Carr: It's the geology, so it just comes up through the ground and here it is. Additionally, we make homes so well today, they are air tight. They keep the cold out. In the winter they keep the heat in. In the summertime they keep the heat out and they keep the cool in. If you have a colorless, odorless gas that's coming up through your basement it's not going anywhere. You run your air conditioner all summer, that air doesn't go anywhere. It just keeps recirculating in your house.

Host: What about the inversions that we get?

Dr. Carr: That's a great topic, and I think we're going to learn a lot more about that here in the coming years, pollution in general. In fact, there was just a recent study that just came out of China where they looked at the incidence of smoking over the last thirty years, and it hasn't changed. They smoke a lot over there, but the amount of smokers hasn't changed by percentage.
However, as we all know, you always see in the papers the pictures of Beijing in the summertime. They even pushed the Olympics off and didn't allow people to drive because of air pollution. The air quality there is horrible. What's interesting is the incidence of lung cancer has doubled in Beijing in the last 30 years. Pollution? I think so. However, we're still working on that issue.
I believe the inversion definitely definitely plays a role here in health issue here in the valley in the Great Salt Lake Basin, but time will tell.

Host: We talked about radon. We talked about air pollution, not necessarily proven yet, but likely.

Dr. Carr: Very likely.

Host: What are some other reasons we've got this 30% incidence of lung cancer in non-smokers here in Utah?

Dr. Carr: I think there is also, believe it or not, we're going to find that there's going to be a genetic component. I think there are people out there whose bodies are essentially predestined for this. I've met a number of families, non-smokers, dad died of lung cancer and they said, "Oh, well he worked in the mines," so they kind of attributed it to something else. Then all of a sudden there's somebody else who's got lung cancer, then somebody else. We're starting to see that kind of issue.
I think the state of Utah's really well set up for that because we keep such amazing genealogical records here in this state that we're starting to mine this kind of data, no pun intended, and see if there's something to this. We think that there is going to be.

Host: Is there research currently going on looking into this?

Dr. Carr: Yes.

Host: When do you think we'll see some results? Do you have any idea?

Dr. Carr: As soon as the person who's pulling the data gives it to me. We had a meeting just recently about this. The preliminary data is very striking, very striking that there's going to be a genetic component that we can start talking about in lung cancer, but not yet published.

Host: You're saying that 30% of people who get lung cancer in the state of Utah are not smokers, so even though I don't smoke I've got an increased chance just because I live here. Is there a stigma attached to people who get lung cancer in general because for so many people it is because of smoking?

Dr. Carr: Yeah, you know, I think there is. It's a shame because it's like, "Oh, they did this to themselves. They were bad people. They smoked cigarettes. They weren't healthy." I think that we need to get beyond that. I think this is a multifactorial problem. The incidence of smoking in the United States continues to decrease, in fact, nationally we're under 20% for the second year in a row.
Here in the state of Utah we're only at 10%, so I think we need to realize that there are a lot of other factors that we aren't controlling, like air pollution, they have to work in a mine because they need a job as an environmental hazard, and the radon. The best thing you could do, honestly, the one take home message is go get a radon testing kit for your house, simple. You can go to, I think it is,, and for $7 they will send you a testing kit and you can get your own house tested.

Host: We're your daily dose of science, conversation and medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.