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Experts say the prognosis for Kathy Griffin is good because her lung cancer was diagnosed at an early stage. Noam Galai/Stringer/Getty Images
  • As many as 20 percent of lung cancer cases in the United States are diagnosed in nonsmokers.
  • Experts say comedian Kathy Griffin’s announcement that she has lung cancer could help drive home the message to nonsmokers to watch for symptoms and get screened.
  • Experts note that diagnostics and treatments for all stages of lung cancer have seen great improvement in recent years.

Comedian Kathy Griffin’s social media announcement that she – a nonsmoker – has been diagnosed with lung cancer may, doctors say, save lives.

That’s because though the public tends to link the risk of lung cancer to smoking, medical experts have long known that nonsmokers, particularly women, are at risk for lung cancer as well.

“Kathy Griffin is a hero in our minds,” Dr. Ravi Salgia, chair of the medical oncology department at City of Hope National Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

“To be able to really reflect on her cancer and share that? She won’t just bring more awareness, she’ll bring more funding for research,” he said.

It’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of lung cancer cases in the United States are people who have never smoked or have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.

The disease is diagnosed in nonsmoking men and women, but it occurs at a higher rate for women, studies have shown.

Dr. Jacob Sands, an oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, said that though the reasons female nonsmokers are diagnosed at a higher rate still aren’t clear, the fact is nothing new.

“There’s a common saying in oncology that everybody with lungs has some risk of getting lung cancer,” he told Healthline.

“Although smoking does substantially increase the risk of lung cancer along with other health problems, lung cancer can happen to anybody. This has been known for many years,” Sands said.

Secondhand smoke has long been a chief suspect in causing cancer in nonsmokers, but it’s not the only player.

“Lung cancer is not just a smoker’s disease anymore,” Salgia said.

He notes that rates in nonsmoking people of Asian and African American descent show higher incidences as well.

Sands pointed to radon exposure as another major factor, saying it’s the second-highest cause behind secondhand smoke.

“Radon is a gas that has no smell or color, so people cannot know if it is around without testing for it,” he said. “Radon occurs naturally and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.”

Radon is more common in certain areas of the country, particularly in basements, but it can seep up to higher floors via heating systems.

“Testing for radon is worthwhile, particularly for those living in areas with potentially higher radon levels,” Sands said.

Family history can also play a role, said Salgia, noting Griffin’s family history of cancer.

Pollution could be a cause, too.

“We don’t quite know (yet), but it needs to be studied,” he said.

Griffin was diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer. That, doctors agree, will most likely save her life.

Most of the time, Salgia noted, lung cancer is discovered at a later stage, when survival rates decrease and the battle to beat the disease grows more intense.

So, what signs should nonsmokers watch for?

Dr. William G. Cance, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, said his organization recommends checking in with your medical professional even if you don’t smoke and you experience:

  • a persistent cough over an extended period of time
  • a persistent lack of energy and/or muscle weakness
  • coughing up blood
  • rapid and unexplained weight loss

If you experience any of these symptoms, getting checked for lung cancer is a smart move, Cance said.

“Although the last decade has been one of dramatic progress in the treatment of lung cancer, the best chance of curing lung cancer happens with early diagnosis,” said Sands.

“It’s important to get evaluated for any symptoms, particularly if persistent,” he added. “This can be particularly important for young people without any smoking history.”

Treatments have improved significantly for most stages of lung cancer.

In fact, said Cance, “We’ve seen the steepest decline in lung cancer deaths over the past two years,” thanks to better treatments.

Salgia said this is true even for later-stage lung cancers.

“I’m seeing more and more cures. I see the light,” he said.

Salgia said City of Hope focuses on treatments and causation. In that vein, they’re trying to figure out why nonsmoking women may be at a higher risk of lung cancer than men, he said.

He hopes Griffin’s openness drives more funding toward such research overall.

Scans are low dose now, he said, and worth pursuing if you have symptoms of concern.

Also, if a person experiences symptoms and gets diagnosed with another ailment, they should still pay attention if those symptoms don’t go away, Sands said.

“If symptoms persist despite initial treatment for a noncancer diagnosis, it’s important to continue to follow up with a doctor, and a CT scan may be important to further evaluate,” he said.

Cance said the world isn’t far from when screening for lung cancer — and all cancers — will be the norm.

“Multi-cancer, early detection tests are on the horizon,” he said. “With blood tests, we’ll soon be able to pick up cancers that way and get them earlier.

“The day will come when you see your primary care, and just like you get your blood sugar checked with a blood draw, you’ll get your cancer test as well,” Cance added.

The goal is to screen everyone regularly.

“And we want to see everyone get the benefits of that,” he said. “Not just those who can write a check.”

Experts say Griffin’s lung cancer prognosis is good due to improved treatments and her recognizing symptoms and catching the cancer early.

“I believe she will save lives,” Cance said. “And at this point, she’s reminding [everyone] that nonsmokers have to pay attention to lung cancer, too.

“Plus, for reasons I don’t understand, there is a stigma attached to lung cancer,” he added. “She’s removing that stigma so people, hopefully, will see their doctor. I’m very grateful to her.”