Never smoked? You can still get lung cancer

Many people diagnosed with lung cancer, like Kathy Griffin and Angela Bailey, are non-smokers.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read August 4, 2021
kathy griffin

Comedian Kathy Griffin speaks onstage during the 2018 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Canadian runner Angela Bailey, who still holds the record for 100-metre sprint from 1987, died last week from lung cancer at only 59. She was in excellent physical shape, and had never smoked.

A few days after Bailey’s death, comedian Kathy Griffin announced that she, too, had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. “Yes, I have lung cancer even though I’ve never smoked!” she wrote

Unfortunately, non-smokers aren’t immune from the threat of lung cancer. Confusingly enough, the most common kind of lung cancer can affect anyone — even people who have never smoked a cigarette in their life.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer, is almost exclusively found in heavy smokers. But non-small cell lung cancer — which includes squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma — can affect anyone. And it’s actually a lot more common than the kind that effects smokers: non-small cell lung cancer makes up close to 80 per cent of all lung cancer cases.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), non-small cell lung cancer usually starts on the outer part of the lung or in the thin cells that line the airways that branch off from the windpipe. Small cell lung cancer, on the other hand, usually starts in cells that line the airways in the centre of the lung.

As with most cancers, lung cancer prognosis varies depending on when it’s detected. (Griffin said her doctors are optimistic, since her cancer is stage one and contained to just one lung.) On average, 19 per cent of people in Canada diagnosed with lung cancer will live another five years. Small cell lung cancer, though has a lower five-year survival rate: only seven per cent.

There’s a stigma associated with the disease that people don’t associate with other kinds of cancers, according to Lung Cancer Canada.

“Whether patients smoked or not, they tend to be blamed for having caused their disease,” the group says. “For many, this blame adds an emotional burden to an already overwhelming situation.”

It’s true that smoking is the main risk factor for lung cancer, the CCS says, but blaming smokers for their cancer is unfair. Nicotine is very hard to quit: the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says its addictiveness is comparable to cocaine or opioids. And even people who have quit smoking are regularly blamed for their diagnosis. Multiple studies have shown that stigma can cause or worsen anxiety and depression in people already dealing with a difficult diagnosis.