Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer of women and men in America. Up to 20% who die from lung cancer (20,000-40,000 people) have never smoked. In this group, more women develop lung cancer than men. One of these women, Beth, is an example of why the American Lung Association Research Institute is now funding groundbreaking studies in this relatively underfunded area.
Beth never smoked. She lived an active lifestyle, ate healthy, and ran marathons. She was married and the mother of a 3-year-old boy. When Beth developed back pain, she sought medical advice and was prescribed conservative treatments including over-the-counter pain relievers, heat, and physical therapy. She attributed this discomfort to keeping up with an active toddler. Those conservative measures provided little comfort and further tests revealed metastatic spinal lesions. Beth was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Eleven months after aggressive treatment Beth died at the age of 37.
While employed at Edelman PR, Beth was active in launching the LUNG FORCE campaign with the American Lung Association and was inspired in telling the stories of those "heroes" especially women, impacted by lung cancer. Now, Beth had become one of those heroes.
Since Beth's passing, her parents wish to fund research into lung cancer in never smokers. "We want to honor Beth's legacy as a Lung Force hero herself and are committing $100,000 toward an American Lung Association Lung Cancer Discovery Award in Beth's memory," said Ed and Susan Conner.
Our Lung Cancer Discovery Award drives critical research performed by top-tier scientists. While there is still much to learn, there has been some progress in this topic as researchers continue to uncover its causes and potential risk factors. For instance, women have been shown to be at greater risk to develop HER2 lung cancer compared to men. Also, genetic factors may play a role, as some individuals with specific genetic mutations seem to have an increased risk of developing lung cancer despite not having any history of tobacco use.
With the Lung Association’s history of empowering outstanding researchers in this field, one recent example is Lixing Yang, PhD at the University of Chicago, who is focusing on uncovering the genetic mutations that may lead to lung cancer in individuals who have never had active exposure to tobacco. In collaboration with the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Yang’s lab analyzed the entire genetic makeup of 1,218 patients, looking for genes that may be related to development of lung cancer in people who have never smoked.
Dr. Yang and other scientists have identified certain genetic mutations, such as the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) mutations, which are more common in people with lung cancer who have never smoked. These discoveries will eventually lead to better detection, treatment and outcomes.
"We want to support research to find out why young, healthy people who have never smoked, like Beth, develop lung cancer, and hope to prevent it in the future," says the Conner family. "We hope that Beth's story and our contribution inspire others to act in support of these research efforts toward groundbreaking science by Lung Association funded researchers."
Blog last updated: September 13, 2023