Non-Smokers With Lung Cancer

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Most lung cancers occur in smokers, but non-smoker Dana Reeve's situation isn't as uncommon as it appears.

Like Reeve, widow of "Superman" star Christopher Reeve, 1 in 5 women diagnosed with the disease never lit a cigarette, doctors say. Yet they share an unfortunate stigma with cancer patients who smoked.

"The underlying assumption is, you were a smoker and you caused this, therefore you're not going to get my sympathy," said Tom Labrecque Jr., who started a foundation to raise awareness after his non-smoker father died several years ago of the disease.

No one "deserves" lung cancer, doctors say. But non-smokers do have one silver lining: They respond better to the newest targeted cancer drugs like Iressa and Tarceva.

That's because people who get lung cancer early in life, like the 44-year-old Reeve, are more likely to have genetic factors fueling their disease, doctors say. Only 3 percent of lung cancers occur in people under 45, regardless of smoking status.

Reeve, an actress who leads a paralysis research foundation named for her husband who died last year, disclosed Tuesday that she was being treated for lung cancer but gave no details on how or where.

Her announcement came two days after ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, a smoker, died of lung cancer at age 67.

Despite their different smoking histories, they share the most common cancer in the world, and the deadliest. This year in the United States, an estimated 93,010 men and 79,560 women will be diagnosed with lung cancer and almost an equal number - 90,490 men and 73,020 women - will die of it.

About 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women with lung cancer never smoked, and the number of non-smokers with the disease doesn't seem to be rising significantly, said Dr. Michael Thun, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society.

But awareness may be on the rise because of the aggressive anti-smoking campaigns in recent years. And the stigma may be rising, too.

"When people get breast cancer, people say, 'What can I do to help you?' When people get lung cancer, people say, 'Did you smoke?"' said Susan Mantel, executive director of Joan's Legacy, a cancer research fundraising group named for Joan Scarangello, a non-smoker and former head writer for newsman Tom Brokaw. Scarangello died in 2001 of lung cancer, as did her nonsmoking mother before her.