The world is still saddened by the tragic death of disco legend Donna Summer, who died of lung cancer (which she kept a secret) at just 63. But Summer’s death also raises a lot of questions about the fatal disease–chiefly, if smoking is most often linked to it, why do non-smokers die of lung cancer?
Lung cancer is the most lethal form of cancer, making up for about 29% of cancer deaths in the United States. And even though smoking rates have declined rapidly in the United States since the 1960s–going from about 42% to about 19% between 1965 and 2010–nationwide, about one in 16 women will still get lung cancer in her lifetime.
Summer’s publicists were quick to assure the public that the singer was not a smoker (though MSNBC uncovered at least one video where she had a cigarette in her hand)–but even if Summer did occasionally smoke, the fact is that 10-15% of lung cancer diagnoses in the United States are of confirmed non-smokers. But why?
Because many people assume that only smokers develop lung cancer, catching the disease early among non-smokers is almost impossible. Recommendations for lung cancer screenings remain exceptionally lax among young people and those who don’t smoke, which means it’s almost always too late by the time the fast-growing cancer is discovered. Knowing the warning signs can help with early detection, but if you think you may be exposed to high risk factors, it’s important to get checked out.
It seems that Donna Summer (as well as thousands of other performers like her) was likely a product of poor circumstances, which made protecting herself against lung cancer difficult. Second-hand smoke, like the kind of she was exposed to by playing clubs and concerts, is one of the biggest causes of lung cancer and cancer deaths in non-smokers. And despite effective bans on smoking in restaurants and bars over the last decade, which protect food service employees and performers, smoking in the home or in cars is still dangerously high. A study released in February found one in three middle school students had recently ridden in a car with a smoker–often a parent.
Environmental factors also play a large role in lung cancer diagnoses and deaths. Exposure to toxins like radon, or even dust from mining and construction work, can lead to fatal lung disease and cancer–which has prompted employers and OSHA to take action toward protecting the lungs of their employees.
Finally, there are the usual dietary and health patterns which are linked to multiple kinds of cancers. The CDC recommends all adults get at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, particularly those high in carotenes, because they’ve been shown to fight and prevent cancer.
What can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones from lung cancer? First, don’t smoke. That’s sort of a no-brainer, but it’s also the single easiest way to slice your risk of lung cancer. Second, urge the people you know who do smoke to quit, and limit your exposure to their second-hand smoke. And, of course, be sure to get plenty of exercise (strong, healthy lungs have a better chance of being able to fend off disease) and eat a balanced healthy diet.