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Lung Cancer is the Most Common Cause of Death from Cancer Worldwide

Dana Reeve was best known as the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, and as a tireless advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries.

She died late Monday (March 6) of lung cancer, one of a growing group of non-smoking women who die from the disease.

Dana Reeve had a nagging cough that started after her husband's death in 2004.

A cough is one of lung cancer's first symptoms. Eighty-five percent of men and 45 percent of women who have lung cancer got it from smoking. So obviously, lung cancer can affect non-smokers as well -- and that is more true in women than men.

The numbers vary from one part of the world to another but the trend is clear.

Cancer specialist Dr. Roy Herbst sees a definite increase of lung cancer among American women.

"Clearly, women do have a higher risk of getting lung cancer. In fact, you know, lung cancer in women kills more women than breast cancer."

Statistics show that up to 20 percent of American women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked cigarettes.

Doctors are not sure why young, non-smoking women are contracting this disease.

They speculate that it could be due to environmental factors such as air pollution, asbestos, secondhand smoke and even fumes from some cooking oils.

Women's bodies may even make them more susceptible to contracting lung cancer according to Dr. Jennifer Garst, a lung cancer specialist.

"It may be that women's bodies are unable to neutralize poisons or toxins such as secondhand smoke or air pollution as well as men's bodies (can). Women's lungs in general tend to be smaller and therefore may concentrate these poisons at higher levels in the delicate lung tissue."

Many non-smokers get lung cancer from their smoking spouses.

Studies show it does not take much secondhand smoke to cause health problems for non-smokers.

Lung cancer is especially hard to detect because the symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing up blood, occur in only about a fourth of the cases.

By the time most people see a doctor, the cancer has spread too far to be effectively treated. Only fifteen percent are still alive five years after being diagnosed with the disease.

Worldwide, more than a million people die of lung cancer each year.

Until doctors have a way to diagnose lung cancer early, they say the best thing to do is to quit or never start smoking and to avoid secondhand smoke and other environmental toxins.