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Nonsmokers Battle Lung Cancer, Too

CancerWise - November 2007

By Dawn Dorsey

Jim Steele and Glenn Wilkinson are living proof that lung cancer is much more than a smoker's disease.

Jim Steele

Neither man ever smoked, and neither showed any of the telltale signs of lung cancer. Yet both were diagnosed with the disease while they were being examined for other conditions.

They are among the relatively small subset of nonsmokers diagnosed with lung cancer each year. About one in five women with lung cancer never smoked, and one in 10 men with lung cancer are nonsmokers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Steele and Wilkinson share another trait as well. Like many nonsmokers with lung cancer, both had long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, also called passive smoking. Other apparent lung cancer risk factors for nonsmokers include exposure to radon gas, asbestos or air pollution, or a family history of cancer.

Fighting an old enemy

Lung cancer survivor and nonsmoker Jim SteeleSteele, now 47, is no stranger to cancer. It took the lives of his mother and father, both lifelong smokers. He was treated in the 1980s and again in the 1990s for Hodgkin's lymphoma. The first go-round he had radiation; the second time he received chemotherapy.

In 2003, Steele's father-in-law and wife changed general practitioners and were so impressed with the new doctor that they urged Steele to do the same. It turned out to be a fortunate decision.

Since Steele's last bout with cancer had been several years earlier, he wasn't having regular computer tomography (CT) scans. Just to be safe, his new doctor suggested a chest X-ray. It showed a 3/8-inch spot on the upper left lobe of Steele's lung.

"I felt fine," Steele says. "I remember thinking, 'This is just crazy. I can't have lung cancer.'"

Persistence pays

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan backed up the diagnosis, but the biopsy that followed was inconclusive. However, the persistent doctor, to whom Steele probably owes his life, wasn't convinced. He felt the biopsy had missed the tumor and recommended surgery to remove it.

But even after surgery, maybe because he had been burned by cancer before, Steele still had doubts. He visited M. D. Anderson, where doctors advised surgical removal of the entire lobe in which the tumor was located, as well as chemotherapy.

Though the surgery and recovery were arduous, Steele says he has no regrets. He now has the energy to enjoy his fast-paced career in new home sales and is able to do what he calls "heavy walking" with his dogs.

"I feel like my lung capacity is about 90% normal," he says. "That extra 10% I just don't have. Otherwise I feel great."

Love silenced him

Wilkinson never smoked, but he was surrounded all his life by people who did.

Lung cancer survivor and nonsmoker Glenn Wilkinson and wife PAt"I just never started drinking or smoking," he says. "I never had the interest, and besides, I didn't want to spend the money."

Both of his parents smoked, and his wife of 50 years smoked all through their marriage. She died in 2003 with multiple health problems, including lupus and lung cancer.
Wilkinson says he never tried to stop her from smoking.

"She enjoyed it so much, so I never did say much about it," he says. "She knew I didn't really like it, but I loved her so much I didn't say anything."

Wilkinson, now 81, was diagnosed with lung cancer when he had a mild stroke in December 2004.

"I was feeling fine," he says. "Then one day I just woke up and couldn't walk. I fell out of bed, and they took me to the hospital."

He has no regrets

During testing related to the stroke, a CT scan revealed Wilkinson had lung cancer. His daughter works at M. D. Anderson, and at her urging, he wasted no time getting there. Another round of tests confirmed the diagnosis, and Wilkinson had surgery to remove the tumor. He did not undergo chemotherapy.

Wilkinson has a few health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure, which he attributes to age, but overall he feels pretty well. He lives with his granddaughter and 8-year-old great-granddaughter.

"My wife and I had a good life, and I wouldn't change a thing," he says. "I miss her, but I'm glad to be here and be able to see my great-granddaughter when she gets home from school."

M. D. Anderson resources:

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center