Australia Lung cancer also affects people who've never smoked. Researchers are trying to work out why

00:07  21 june  2021
00:07  21 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Manmohan Bedi says the first thing people ask when they learn he has lung cancer is whether he smokes cigarettes.

"I've never smoked in my life," he replies.

The Daffodil Centre senior research fellow Marianne Weber said people with lung cancer were often asked whether they were smokers.

Although smoking was "by far" the largest independent risk factor for lung cancer, Dr Weber said very little was known about the causes for people who've never smoked.

To find answers, Dr Weber is overseeing a new study to identify potential risk factors in people who don't smoke.

Researchers are sifting through two large population studies in Australia and China, looking to see if they can link lung cancer in non-smokers to factors such as diet, lifestyle and household air pollution.

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"If we can highlight a risk profile for someone who might go on to develop lung cancer when they're a non-smoker, that would be ideal," she said.

According to figures from Cancer Council NSW, about 35 per cent of Australian women diagnosed with lung cancer, and 15 per cent of men with the condition, were life-long non-smokers.

A growing number of non-smokers were presenting with the disease, said Robert Stirling, a senior respiratory specialist at The Alfred Hospital and leader of the Victorian Lung Cancer Registry.

"There seems to be an increase in the number of patients with lung cancer who have no substantial smoking history," Dr Stirling said.

While he welcomed The Daffodil Centre's study into environmental causes, Dr Stirling said there was also need for more research about hereditary susceptibility to the disease.

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Lung cancer symptoms 'vague'

Mr Bedi received a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer in late 2019.

The cancer had already metastasised, meaning cells had broken away from the original tumour and formed new ones in his lungs.

"They told me I won't live [to see] 2020," he said.

Dr Weber said more than 40 per cent of lung cancer cases were diagnosed at stage four.

"It's diagnosed late because the symptoms are vague and non-specific," she said.

Mr Bedi, for example, complained of a persistent cough for about six months before his diagnosis and was losing weight: two common symptoms of lung cancer.

Other symptoms include tiredness and hoarseness.

"When you don't have a history of smoking, then lung cancer isn't the obvious cause," Dr Weber said.

Leading cause of cancer death

Lung cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer diagnosed in Australia, but the leading cause of cancer death.

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Dr Stirling said more research was needed to help identify lung cancer in its early stages to prevent the condition from progressing.

"Of all the patients that present with the disease, the current survival rate is only about 17 per cent," he said.

"For patients with stage four disease the median survival, so that's the time at which 50 per cent of patients will succumb to the disease, is somewhere between seven and 12 months."

About 8,500 people die from lung cancer in Australia every year.

Both experts said they'd like to break down the stigma around the disease, so people didn't think of lung cancer as a "smoker's disease".

Two years after his diagnosis, Mr Bedi is taking treatment day by day and remains upbeat despite his diagnosis.

"I'll go on immunotherapy [treatment] for a while and we'll see what happens after that," he said.

"I'm never interested in asking how long I'll live, it's not going to be a big issue."

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