Researchers studying causes of lung cancer in Asian women who never smoked

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Researchers and doctors have been left baffled after a recent study found more than 50% of Asian women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.

“That’s actually a really interesting phenomenon which is unfortunate,” Dr. Rajat Thawani said.

Dr. Thawani is a medical oncologist who teaches at the University of Chicago Medicine.

“Oncogene is basically a gene in the cell that switches on and the cell becomes cancerous,” he said. “A lot of the oncogene cancer is seen in nonsmokers. Characteristically early on when it was described it was described in Asian women. It kinda opened a whole new field of medicine and research in lung cancer.”

He’s been studying the diagnosis and treating lung cancer patients across all racial and ethnic groups, including Asians.

“They’re usually younger, they’re usually healthier, they’re usually diagnosed at a later stage because we don’t offer screenings to nonsmokers,” he said.

Dr. Thawani said it’s unclear what’s triggering the gene mutation and why Asian women are seeing a higher risk.

“It’s hard to say, it’s still being explored,” he said. “A lot of research is happening in this space right now.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco are trying to figure out the cause and recently received a $12 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to lead the first long term study among Asian Americans.

“This is a long time coming, why hasn’t there been such a study ever,” Scarlett Lin Gomez said. “I think in large part because there’s this perception that cancer is not a problem in our Asian American communities and that is driven in large part by many of the statistics that are reported for Asian Americans are combined.”

Gomez is one of the researchers conducting the Female Asian Never Smokers study in California. They’re hoping to enroll 600 Asian women in a case control study to examine the possible risk factors here.

“We do know from a few studies that [have] been done in Asia that certainly secondhand smoke is a driving risk factor as well as exposure to air pollution and cooking oil fumes,” she said.

Gomez believes lung cancer screening guidelines should be addressed and said right now you’re only eligible if you have a history of smoking.

“Perhaps there might be a factor, a genetic factor, environmental factor, a lifestyle factor that we discover from our study that can help to refine those screening guidelines,” she said.

While research is moving slowly, doctors said there’s now a sense of urgency to get answers.

“I think the one thing we can do is probably increase awareness about lung cancer that anyone can get lung cancer despite not smoking and I think raising that awareness in primary care physicians and patients will probably help us,” he said.

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