Jenn Ryan
Jenn Ryan
February 8, 2024 ·  6 min read

Can You Get Lung Cancer Without Smoking? This Healthy 28-Year Old Did

Stephen Huff, 28, grew up playing baseball in Tennessee. After earning a scholarship as a pitcher, Huff was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. He exercised every day, ate well, and even said he tried to eat organic. He could run eight miles at a time.

Huff was the very picture of health—an athlete who took care of his body. His only complaints were occasional indigestion or heartburn. After playing minor league baseball and coaching, he went back to school to earn a teaching degree. As his first year of teaching was ending, the symptoms started.

It was a cough and what Huff described as a wheezing sensation in late 2016 into early 2017. He had a large swollen lymph node, which the doctor attributed to Huff’s diagnosis of bronchitis. Huff was given antibiotics and sent on his way.

But a few weeks later, Huff still wasn’t better. He went to an ear nose and throat specialist (ENT) for a CT scan. Thirty minutes after leaving his appointment, Huff got a call from his doctor—the results weren’t good and he was scheduling Huff to see an oncologist.

Huff was diagnosed with Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer in June 2017. By then cancer has metastasized into his lymph nodes, chest, liver, and spinal cord. Doctors told him that the five-year survival rate was less than five percent.

Huff had never smoked.

What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?

While smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer—accounting for up to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths—it’s not the only one [1].

Other risk factors include:

  • Secondhand smoke. Even if you’ve never smoked, being around smokers can be just like smoking. Thousands of people die from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke every year [2].
  • Radon exposure. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that can get trapped in buildings and is the second leading cause of lung cancer. One out of every 15 homes in the United States is thought to have high radon levels [3].
  • Having a family history of lung cancer. If one of your immediate family members (parents, siblings, or children) have lung cancer, you are at higher risk to develop the disease.
  • Toxic substances. These include asbestos, arsenic, and diesel exhaust. (God, why do I have to drive a TDI?)
  • Having HIV. People who have HIV are twice as likely to get lung cancer, which could be because people who have HIV are more likely to smoke [4].

If you’re not sure about your risk for lung cancer, you can always follow up with your healthcare professional to discuss both your risk and preventative measures you can take.

How Lung Cancer Is Diagnosed

Unfortunately, there are limited screening methods for lung cancer which makes early diagnosis difficult, however, there are some new tests being developed. If you’re not a smoker, it’s likely you won’t even be recommended to be screened by your doctor.

If you do smoke or have smoked in the past, your doctor will recommend yearly screenings with CT scans once you’re past the age of 55. If your CT or other imaging results potentially show cancer, your doctor will follow up with a biopsy or ultrasound to confirm the cancer diagnosis and determine its type [5].

How Stephen Huff Was Treated and His Results

Huff said he’s been being treated with a new treatment recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called targeted therapy.

Targeted therapy uses medication or other substances to target and kill cancer cells without the intensive side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, two of the most common cancer treatments [6].

For Huff, targeted therapy is ideal because it’s designed to fight genetic mutations that cause cancer—and Huff has a rare genetic mutation called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) that’s suspected to be the cause of his lung cancer.

Huff says he takes eight pills a day split into two doses and has minimal side effects. Today, Huff says it’s been 16 months since he began his treatment and that some of his tumors have “dissolved completely” while his major tumor in his bronchial tube has shrunk by 60 percent.

Lung Cancer Isn’t Always the Consequence of Smoking—Here’s What Symptoms to Look Out For

There’s a huge stigma associated with lung cancer, and Huff has experienced this with his illness. He says most people associate lung cancer with smoking, and so not only are people with lung cancer discriminated against because people assume they smoke, but this type of cancer gets less funding as a result as well.

Huff emphasized the importance of being a strong advocate for yourself if you feel something isn’t right with your health. If he’d waited too long to see a doctor, he might not be here today.

Here are the symptoms of lung cancer to be aware of for both you and your loved ones [7]:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away or continues to get worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain that’s worse with deep breathing or coughing
  • Hoarseness in your voice
  • Weight loss or appetite loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Infections such as bronchitis that don’t go away
  • Wheezing

If cancer has metastasized, it can also cause headaches, weakness, jaundice, swollen lymph nodes, or bone pain.

Keep in mind that most forms of lung cancer won’t cause symptoms until they’ve spread—so being aware of your risk now and working to minimize your risk may be helpful.

Reducing Your Risk of Lung Cancer

There are things you can do now to reduce your risk of lung cancer even if you don’t smoke (but, of course, if you do smoke, you should stop now—talk to your doctor about quitting!)

Stop hanging around people who smoke. You might think it’s not doing damage because you’re not actually smoking, but it’s super bad for you.

Get your home or work tested for radon. Radon cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. A home test for radon is simple and can be done by a store-bought kit or by a professional, or you can encourage your workers to conduct one as well.

If you don’t know your family history, find out. My grandma survived cancer three times, including lung cancer, but she smoked for 40 years before I was born. Does that mean my risk is higher? Probably, but we shouldn’t leave the smoking out of it.

Stop exercising on busy roads. You’re breathing in diesel exhaust among other carcinogenic substances from car exhaust [9]!

As Stephen Huff said, “If it can happen to me it can happen to you.” Lung cancer does not just happen to smokers. Know your risk and the symptoms—and encourage your loved ones (and random strangers) to quit smoking!