Blog: Decoding the Research

Donna Summer, another great legend dies from lung cancer

Published: May 20th, 2012

We lost another great female icon to lung cancer last week in Donna Summer. It is difficult for many families to come forward after a diagnosis or death from lung cancer because of the stigma attached, and we are heartened by her family’s courage in releasing this information.

Ms. Summer was a nonsmoker, and much of the dialogue has been about what caused her lung cancer. While the media and blogosphere has been talking about particles and debris from 9/11 as a possible cause, CNN did a great piece on why this is most likely not the cause of her lung cancer. You can view the interview with Dr. Gupta here:

The truth is you don’t need to smoke to get lung cancer. Current estimates say 15-20% of lung cancer patients have never smoked – that means over 30,000 never smokers will be diagnosed with lung cancer and almost 25,000 never smokers will die from lung cancer this year alone.According to these estimates, never smoking related lung cancer is the sixth leading cause of cancer death in the US. And, among nonsmokers, women are more likely than men to have lung cancer, and more likely to have certain types of lung cancer.

What causes lung cancer in never smokers? In addition to smoking, other environmental risk factors for lung cancer include air pollution, radon gas, asbestos, arsenic, chromium, nickel, soot, tar, and other substances. Inherited genetic factors (a family history of disease) can also increase a person’s risk for lung cancer, and we know some ethnic groups (for example, Asian populations) are at higher risk for certain types of lung cancers.

Limiting exposure to known environmental factors is a major way to lower risk, including cigarette smoke and radon. A healthy lifestyle – a good diet and being physically active – may also lower risk for lung cancer (in addition to many other cancers and diseases). Research is ongoing to investigate ways of preventing and detecting lung cancer, especially in never smokers. Uniting Against Lung Cancer is funding a number of research projects on lung cancer in never smokers, and types and treatments for lung cancer associated with never smokers.

Donna Summer was one of thousands of nonsmoking men and women who die from lung cancer each year. She left an indelible mark on pop culture and American music, but we hope her death will also shine a spotlight on this devastating disease. No one deserves to get lung cancer.