Clues Sought In Medical Mystery

The disclosure by Dana Reeve that she has lung cancer has focused attention on women who get the disease even though they've never smoked, and the growing rate at which the illness is occurring in such women.

Reeve, 44, is the widow of Christopher Reeve, who starred in "Superman" movies. She never smoked.

"It's obvious that we need to understand that more than we currently know" about why non-smokers get lung cancer, says Laurie Fenton, president of the Lung Cancer Alliance.


The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler Wednesday that, "Fifteen percent of the (lung cancer) diagnoses this year will be in non-smokers, and the trend is growing in women.

"We're not sure why. We're looking at many types of studies that are focused on genetic predispositions, environmental factors, perhaps estrogen. But the key is that we don't know enough and we need to know more."

Secondhand smoke, radon and asbestos are among the possible environmental triggers, Fenton says.

The statistics are sobering, Fenton notes: "Most (people) do not realize that 70 percent of those who will be diagnosed this year have (only) a 15 percent chance of living longer than five years.

"Having said that, what we would share with Dana, as we have with others, is, do not think of the statistics. Think of yourself as your own statistic. And build a team around you that can give you the best advice and counsel so you can battle the disease, and more importantly, have a full understanding of all of the new treatments and options that for the first time ever are coming online for you."

Still, "Beyond drug therapies, drugs that may be in the pipeline or clinical trials where you can be a part of testing, early detection is the key. Because most of these diagnoses are late-stage, and whether you're a former smoker, a non-smoker or a current smoker, we need to understand earlier how to detect and treat (lung cancer)."

If problems crop up, honesty with your health care provider is key, Fenton observes: "You need to acknowledge with your general practitioner whether or not you've smoked, whether or not you have a family history, whether or not you've worked in an environment that may have exposed you to certain particulates. It's important that you be communicating, and more important that your general practice doctor is aware of this and is asking the right questions."

The Lung Cancer Alliance describes itself as "the only national non-profit organization dedicated solely to advocating for people living with lung cancer or those at risk for the disease."