Rise of Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers: What Does It Mean?

45,000 cases of lung cancer are diagnosed every year in the UK, making it one of the most common forms of cancer. Recently, the number of cases of lung cancer in non-smokers has risen, and many of these cases have been diagnosed at incurable stages.

Studies published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine state that lung cancer in so-called “never-smokers” is now the eighth most common cause of cancer-related death in the UK. It’s also the seventh most prominent form of cancer in the world.

Scientists believe there are several causes for this increase, including environmental factors. Breathing in second-hand smoke is one of the biggest causes of lung cancer in people who have never smoked, accounting for around 15% of cases. Over 20% of cases are caused by exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos or diesel exhaust fumes, while 8% is caused by air pollution.

Symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers

The difficulty of identifying lung cancer in non-smokers means that many people are diagnosed when it has reached stage three or four and cannot be cured. This is due to many patients being misdiagnosed and symptoms being mistaken for other conditions, such as a respiratory infection, asthma or allergies.

The majority of lung cancer diagnoses in non-smokers present as adenocarcinomas: a variety of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that develops in the outer regions of the lungs. This can go unnoticed for long periods of time before showing symptoms.

Early detection of these symptoms can help patients get treatment earlier, so it’s vital that symptoms aren’t misdiagnosed by GPs. Some of the main symptoms of lung adenocarcinoma include:

  • Shortness of breath, which can often be dismissed as an age-related condition or lack of activity
  • Back or shoulder pain
  • Chest pain that gets worse with deep breaths or when lying in a certain position, caused by the tumours which irritate the membranes (pleura) of the lungs
  • Fatigue

Studies have shown that lung cancer in non-smokers is twice as likely to spread to the pleura, which leads to pain when breathing deeply. Other signs to watch out for include coughing up blood, a persistent cough and hoarseness.

How can GPs help detect the condition earlier?

A lack of awareness from patients and minimal screenings prescribed by GPs means that symptoms often go unnoticed until the condition is incurable. In the case of non-smokers, these signs are even less likely to raise alarms, as the patient will be low on the GP’s radar. However, physicians need to remain alert to potential signs of lung cancer in all patients, not just those who seem most at risk.

It is also beneficial to provide information for patients to read in practices and GP surgeries so that people can be better informed of worrying signs that need to be investigated. Many of the signs of lung cancer are similar to symptoms other conditions, such as allergies or muscular problems, so it’s easy for them to be overlooked. As GPs, it’s crucial to make sure patients are educated and realise the importance of seeking advice if they display symptoms.

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