As you’ll remember, my sister Ruthie Leming was diagnosed when she was 40. She died 19 months later. She never smoked a day in her life. Turns out that even though her case was rare, it’s less rare than it used to be. More:

Though lung cancer diagnoses in the young are rare and data on that age group is limited, “it seems to be emerging as its own sub-type of lung cancer—one for which new powerful treatments are needed to make it a livable disease,” said Dr. Geoff Oxnard, a lung cancer specialist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

In 2013, 159,480 men and women in the U.S. will die from the disease–more than those who die from breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined.

lastbirthdayThough smoking is, by far, the greatest risk factor in developing lung cancer, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer patients in the U.S. have never smoked. Most of these patients are women and, like Taylor and Nunez, are diagnosed at a younger age than the typical lung cancer patient.

“Young lung cancer patients we see are also more likely to be Stage IV at diagnosis. By the time their disease is discovered they are already pretty sick,” Oxnard said.

That was what happened with Ruthie. It came on her so fast. She had been coughing for months, and had pain in her back, but when she finally sought a second opinion, and the doctor ordered X-rays, there still wasn’t enough to diagnose cancer. She had spotting on her lungs, but the other indicators of cancer were not there. It stumped doctors. When they performed more tests only three weeks later, it was by then too late.

Three weeks.

There are possible contributing factors that might have made her more susceptible to lung cancer, but:

Still, “the answer is that we really don’t know why people with seemingly no risk factors get lung cancer,” Oxnard said. “In the young, we are even more confused when someone that hasn’t smoked and hasn’t even been alive long enough to be exposed to anything toxic gets lung cancer.”

Please consider a tax-deductible gift to the American Cancer Society this holiday season.