Harvard Health Letter

Lung cancer: Not just for smokers

People who never smoked may have a different form of the disease that responds better to a new generation of targeted medications.

"Did he smoke?"

That's often the first response to news that someone has lung cancer. It's an understandable reaction: We've been reading and hearing about the link between smoking and lung cancer ever since the 1964 Surgeon General's report. Cancer epidemiologists estimate that 85%–90% of those who die from lung cancer in the United States were smokers.

But what of the remaining 10%–15%? Some experts estimate that as many as 15,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer even though they have never smoked. The most famous recent case was Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana Reeve, who died in 2005. If never-smokers' lung cancer were a separate category, it would be among the top 10 most lethal cancers in the country, ranking somewhere near ovarian cancer.

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