Lung cancer recently claimed the life of actor Dustin Diamond, best known for portraying Samuel “Screech” Powers on the beloved teen comedy “Saved by the Bell.” Diamond became concerned in October about a visible lump on his throat, according to media reports. In mid-January, he underwent cancer testing and disclosed the diagnosis of stage 4 small cell carcinoma days later.
Diamond’s passing at age 44, following a brief, three-week battle, illustrates how severely lung cancer can strike absent any noticeable symptoms in the early stages.
Diamond said he did not smoke, according to reports. But although tobacco use is the leading risk factor for lung cancer in the U.S., nearly 80 percent of lung cancer patients are not active smokers, and around 15 percent never started in the first place.
The truth is that lung cancer can occur in anyone with lungs.
Even if you have never smoked a cigarette in your life, there are many factors that influence your risk of lung cancer. Some of the risks can be reduced through your own actions, while others are beyond your control.
Risks you can reduce
Show your lungs how much you appreciate them. Curtail these controllable lung cancer risks that don’t involve your having a smoking habit.
Secondhand smoke: Smoking doesn’t just impact the smoker; secondhand smoke increases nonsmokers’ risk of lung cancer if they have to breathe it at work or home. The American Cancer Society says that secondhand smoke has higher concentrations of nicotine and cancer-causing agents than the smoke being inhaled directly by the smoker.
Exposure to radon: Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., causing 20,000 cases annually. Outdoors, radon is too scarce to be considered dangerous, but it can become concentrated indoors, especially in basements. You can buy a DIY kit or hire a professional to test the radon levels in your home.
Asbestos, inhaled chemicals, and other pollutants: Exposure to toxic substances like asbestos, uranium, and arsenic, typically found in industrial workplaces, can increase lung cancer risk, particularly for smokers. If you work around carcinogenic agents, limit your exposure as much as possible.
Diesel Exhaust: Diesel fuels, used primarily in transport trucks, trains, generators and other large engines, creates an exhaust made up of gases and soot. They are filled with particles that studies have linked to small but significant increases in lung cancer risk. If your work on or near diesel engines, minimize the time you are around their fumes when they are running or idling.
Poor Nutrition: Evidence suggests that red meat and alcohol might raise the risk of lung cancer, and smokers may be at increased risk if they take beta-carotene supplements. More research needs to be done to understand the relationship between food and lung cancer risk specifically, but eating a balanced diet and keeping your weight and blood sugar within a healthy range is thought to reduce the overall risk for several cancers.
Risks you have to live with
While lifestyle-related lung cancer risks can be changed, there are others that cannot be.
Genetics: Researchers have identified several gene mutations that are associated with lung cancer. Sometimes the mutations happen during a person’s lifetime, and sometimes they are inherited. People with a parent, brother, or sister who has had lung cancer are slightly more prone to the disease.
Aging: The simple fact is getting older increases the chances of lung cancer. Around 90 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer are age 55 or over. However, as in Diamond’s case, being younger than 55 doesn’t mean there is no risk of developing the disease. There are lung cancer patients in Orange County who are in their 30s and 40s and who have never smoked.
Talk to your physician about how you can reduce the likelihood of lung cancer. If you smoke or used to smoke, or if you’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke, a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan could save your life. Screening increases the chance of diagnosing lung cancer at an early stage when it is more likely to be cured. Data shows that LDCT scans discover early-stage lung cancer up to 85 percent of the time and this early intervention reduces mortality by 20 percent, compared to more traditional chest x-rays.
Dan J. Raz, M.D., M.A.S. is a lung cancer surgeon and co-director of the lung cancer and thoracic oncology program at City of Hope. He oversees a lung cancer screening program at City of Hope Newport Beach. Learn more about our lung screening program here.