Non-smoking Women Frequently Lung Cancer Victims

By: Lindsay Puccio
By: Lindsay Puccio

August 10, 2005

This week, lung cancer took the life of anchorman Peter Jennings. In his case, the disease was likely caused by smoking. But yesterday Dana Reeve, the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, was also diagnosed with lung cancer. Shockingly, she has never touched a cigarette. Now, doctors are saying they are seeing a trend of the deadly disease in non-smokers.

It's not as uncommon as you might think. Doctors say that while smoking is by far the number one cause of lung cancer, non-smoking women are falling victim more frequently. The disease is surprisingly the leading cause of cancer death among American women.

"More women die of lung cancer than breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer combined," said Dr. Heidi Gillenwater, a UVa Oncologist.

It is certainly news to many women that have never lit up. In fact, about 10 percent to 15 percent of lung cancer victims have never smoked. Among non-smokers, women are two to three times more likely than men to get the disease.

"Less than 5 percent of patients are alive in 5 years if [they] have stage 4 disease," said Gillenwater.

If cigarettes are not to blame, then what is? Doctors are not sure why but, they believe secondhand smoke, diet, air pollution, and hormonal differences between men and women are all contributing factors.

Frustrating for researchers, lung cancer gets little exposure. Breast cancer gets almost 10 times more funding per death than lung cancer.

"Certainly [this] is a different disease that we clearly do not understand and will not until we have more research funding," said Gillenwater.

Gillenwater is in support of more research for lung cancer. She is a founding board member of the "Women Against Lung Cancer" organization that is dedicated to decreasing smoker and non-smokers deaths.

Currently, studies are being conducted to determine why non-smoking women are at such a high risk for lung cancer.

For more information about Women Against Lung Cancer, check out their website at

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