Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers on the Rise: Lung Cancer Awareness Day Preview

by Columbia Surgery on October 28, 2013

On Saturday November 16, the Columbia University Department of Surgery will be hosting Lung Cancer Awareness Day at the medical center campus in Washington Heights. To learn more about this program we spoke with Joshua R. Sonett, MD, Section Chief, General Thoracic Surgery, who will be speaking at this event.

Question: This is the first ever Lung Cancer Awareness Day for the Department of Surgery. What was the reason for creating this?

Joshua Sonett: Lung cancer is sometimes referred to as the forgotten cancer probably due to its association with smoking. While it is true that 80% to 90% of lung cancer cases are attributed to smoking, there are other causes such as exposure to asbestos, radon gas, and even pollution. Genetics also play a role in lung cancer. Someone who has never smoked can develop the disease.

Nobody wants to get cancer and regardless of cause, we must remember treat these patients with compassion and respect. Lung cancer is also the most common cancer in the U.S so it’s important to provide education on this disease

Q: What will be discussed at Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: In addition to screening and prevention there will be a discussion on the impact of lung cancer to our society and a debate on the merits and risks of available treatment options.

The day will wrap up with the personal story of a young man who was diagnosed and cured of lung cancer and then went on to become an advocate for using personalized medicine to treat the disease.

Q: Is the occurrence of lung cancer decreasing?

JS: Lung cancer caused by smoking is decreasing. This is probably due to the outreach and educational efforts taking place today. Yet, the new cases of lung cancer attributed to non-smoking are increasing and the reasons for this are unknown. Lung cancer is curable in most cases, but there are still aspects of the disease we do not understand. This is why awareness days like this are needed and beneficial to both the medical community and public.

Q: Will information on smoking cessation be provided?

JS: Lung Cancer Awareness Day will focus on the medical and surgical aspects of lung cancer. Cessation involves addiction and psychology and more than surgical or medical expertise. For that reason it will not be a central topic. Anyone who is interested in learning about cessation can visit

Q: Will you be addressing questions about e-cigarettes during the awareness day? For instance, are e-cigarettes safe?

JS: Again due to our medical and surgical focus, e-cigarettes will not be a topic of discussion at Lung Cancer Awareness Day.

As a side comment, the scientific community is inconclusive in their studies on e-cigarettes, much as they were with tobacco. It took over 50 years for the scientific community to determine that cigarettes were unsafe. Yet, I still cannot imagine that e-cigarettes are an activity that anyone should start.

Q: Will personalized medicine be discussed at the Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: Yes, personalized medicine is a topic growing in importance that will be covered by my colleague Balazs Halmos, MD. (For a brief overview of the use in personalized medicine in the treatment of lung cancer, please see this video that Dr. Sonett created at the beginning of this year.)

Q: Can you tell us about the patient who will be speaking at Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: Our planned patient speaker is a very interesting and compelling young man who has made himself into a well-known advocate of using personalized medicine for the treatment of lung cancer. Against steep odds, he has successfully fought his diagnosis and is doing very well.

Q: What would you say to someone who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer?

JS: Lung cancer is cured every day regardless of the stage it is in when found. So there is always hope. It’s important to accept a lung cancer diagnosis in a positive and constructive manner with a mindset of being cured.

Q: Who would benefit from attending Lung Cancer Awareness Day?

JS: This will be a casual event with time for one-on-one discussion and an opportunity to speak with experts. So Lung Cancer Awareness Day would be of interest to anyone who is affected by lung cancer. Clinicians who treat lung cancer patients could also benefit from hearing about the research efforts taking place at a research institution like Columbia.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Gail F. November 14, 2013 at 8:54 am

I am a 62 year old woman and my question is: can you get cancer from second hand smoke? I lived at home until I was 22 in a small apartment with 2 parents that smoked 2 packs of cigarettes each. One smoked Pall Mall and the other Marlboro. Both of my parents died from smoking related emphasyma and dad lung cancer. I get regular check ups but I always seem to have a cough and congestion..which eventually ends up with bronchitis boarder line pneumonia. I have had chest ex rays and nothing shows up, thank God, my voice always sounds like I’m sick. I have asked the doctor and they say that it’s been too many years have passed since I was exposed to it. . Btw I never smoked. Should I be worried?

Columbia Surgery November 14, 2013 at 10:39 am

Hi Gail,

Thank you for reaching out to us. I am going to forward your question to Dr. Sonett, who would be best able to answer your question. As soon as I hear a response, I will write back.

I would also like to take this opportunity to invite you to our Lung Cancer Awareness Day event this upcoming Saturday. Issues such as screening and prevention will be discussed. You can find out more by visiting our events page home at While there is no fee for this program, registration is limited so it will be on a first to sign up basis. We hope you can join us!

Elaine B. November 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm

I recently had my middle right lung removed (VAT procedure) because of cancer–Stage Ia. I now have a chronic cough and was told it could last several months. Could you explain why so long. Also, what are the chances I will get cancer in the other lung lobes.
Thank you.

Columbia Surgery November 15, 2013 at 10:16 am

Gail –

I have forwarded your comment to Dr. Sonett, and received the following response:

Do not be too worried, as most people exposed to second hand smoke will be fine. But, second hand smoke does affect some people, so I would advise you to see a pulmonologist and have your specific lung symptoms and case reviewed.

I hope this helps. Again, I encourage you to attend our free Lung Cancer Awareness Day tomorrow, where you can receive more information about screening and prevention. All the best.

Columbia Surgery November 15, 2013 at 10:38 am

Hi Elaine,

Thank you for reaching out to us. I have forwarded your question to Dr. Sonett, who would be best able to answer your question. As soon as I have a response, I will reply.

I would also like to extend an invitation to our Lung Cancer Awareness event tomorrow. It is free and open to the public. You can find out more information: I hope you will consider attending.

Harry F. February 4, 2014 at 3:17 pm

As a layman my impression concerning lung cancer is that if it can be treated surgically the patient may do okay(survive and pretty much escape the worst of the illness). But if the cancer is too advanced for surgery the patient faces a poor chance of survival for more than a year or two on average. Is this correct?

Columbia Surgery February 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

Hi Harry,

Thank you for your comment. I have forwarded your question to Dr. Sonett, who would be best able to answer it. As soon as I hear a response, I will reply.

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center is also hosting a webinar 2/25 about advancements in the treatment of lung cancer. For more information, please read the blog article, Personalized Medicine Transforming Lung Cancer Treatment and you can register on our GoToWebinar page. I encourage you to participate and ask questions.

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