FRIDAY, Dec. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Opera legend Beverly Sills never smoked. Neither did actress and health advocate Dana Reeve, wife of the late actor Christopher Reeve.
And yet in 2007 and 2006, respectively, both joined the ranks of about 32,000 Americans each year who never touch a cigarette but die of lung cancer anyway.
In fact, experts say, one in every five cases of the leading cancer killer occurs in nonsmokers. The annual death toll among this group now approaches that of breast cancer (about 40,000 per year) and is roughly equal to that of prostate cancer (32,000). Many never-smoking women may also be unaware that they are more than twice as likely to die of lung cancer as they are of ovarian cancer (14,000 deaths per year).
Numbers like those have experts calling for a shift in the public's thinking on lung cancer, away from its label of "the smoker's disease."
"We say, 'If you have a lung, you can get lung cancer,'" said Linda Wenger, executive director of Uniting Against Lung Cancer (UALC), a nonprofit advocacy group aimed at reaching a better understanding of lung cancer. The group was founded after the death in 2001 of Joan Scarangello, an ABC and NBC journalist and lifelong nonsmoker who fell victim at age 47 to lung cancer.
"She was very healthy, she was a runner," Wenger said, but the disease claimed Scarangello as it has many never-smokers. "We need to look at lung cancer as being a cancer like any other," Wenger added.
Many experts believe that the stigma around smoking that accompanies lung cancer -- that its victims somehow "brought it on themselves" -- has dampened public sympathy for patients and hindered funding for research.
"The lung cancer research field is definitely the stepchild in the [cancer research] family, and we're sure a lot of that has to do with stigma," said Holli Kawadler, UALC's scientific program director.
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