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Growing Lung Cancer Toll On Non-Smoking Women A Mystery

by Elizabeth Cook and Molly McCrea

(KPIX 5) -- Doctors are seeking to unravel the mystery as to why lung cancer is claiming victims who have never smoked in their lives, including a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is not letting the disease slow her down.

Lung cancer kills more women than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined. Smoking is the biggest risk factor for this disease, something that 31-year-old Thuy Truong has never done.

Born in Vietnam, Truoug immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. After graduating from USC with Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, Truong launched three startups.

Featured among the "Forbes 30 Under 30" list, Truong develops smartphone apps. She sold one to a Silicon Valley gaming company for more than $1 million.

"I work, I work! I have so much fun and when I work in Silicon valley, I have so much fun," laughed Truong who is now known as Queen of the Startups in her native country.

Last year, she traveled back to Vietnam to produce a feature film. While in Hanoi, she landed in the emergency room and was given a terrifying diagnosis.

"They found a lot of fluid in my lung and they confirmed that I had lung cancer," she said.

Back in California, doctors revealed her disease was advanced. She had stage 4 lung cancer; it had spread to other parts of her body.

"I never smoked in my life," proclaimed Truong. She isn't alone. Doctors are seeing a growing proportion of lung cancer in women who have never smoked.

One in six female lung cancer patients, young Asian women in particular, who never picked up a cigarette are getting diagnosed with the disease.

Experts are not sure what is behind the worrying trend.

Truong's oncologist, Dr. Jorge Nieva of USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, said while there is no hard evidence, research is suggesting many theories. Birth control pills, environmental toxins, even HPV infections may all play a role.

But it's a mystery. "Something in our environment, something in our practices ... whether it's weight, diet, hormones," said Nieva. "We don't really have that smoking gun for why we are seeing this phenomenon."

USC Keck Medical Center Director of Thoracic Surgery Dr. Anthony Kim says among those diagnosed with lung cancer, nonsmokers are more likely to carry a certain genetic mutation than smokers.

In addition, the mutation appears to be more prevalent in Asian women. "Many of us in the field have seen that, have seen that exact same story," said Kim.

While her cancer cannot be cured, new targeted therapies are keeping Truong's cancer at bay, and under control.

The hope is that she can hold on as better treatments get developed.

"We've made enough advances in this disease over the last years that we're getting better and better at treating it," said Nieva.

Troung is now focused on living a life that counts. "Normal people are going to ask how much time I have left. How much time I have left doesn't matter." she explained.

From creating a new app for cancer patients seeking the best care, known as the Salt Cancer Initiative, to helping cleari debris from the Pacific Crest trail for other hikers, Thuy lives every day with gusto, as if it may be her last.

"I have nothing to regret," said Thuy, with a smile.

Doctors, scientists, and researchers agree more funding is needed to get to the bottom of why so many women who have never smoked are now coming down with lung cancer.



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