Dana Reeve - widow of Superman actor Christopher Reeve and advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries - died late Monday of lung cancer at the age of 44. Dana Reeve is among a growing group of non-smoking women who contract and die from the disease.
Dana Reeve had a nagging cough for about a year. It started in 2004, a few months after her husband's death. She said the diagnosis of lung cancer came as a surprise, considering the risk factors for the disease.
She said, "I don't live in the city. I don't work in a high-risk environment, and I am not a smoker. So it was never anything that would occur to me that I would get lung cancer, but the more I have learned about lung cancer is that it is becoming much more random, and it is striking women who are under fifty and are non-smokers and not in a risk environment."
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and a major killer throughout the world. Nearly 90 percent of the cases are linked to smoking. The other ten-plus percent of the victims are - like Dana Reeve - non-smokers.
And for reasons not yet well understood, a greater proportion of women who develop lung cancer are non-smokers compared to men who get the disease. Derek Raghavan is director of the Cleveland Clinic and a cancer researcher. He says second-hand smoke is a major threat.
He said, "Many of the people who list themselves correctly as never having smoked a cigarette have actually inhaled a lot of passive smoke. You'll find that people who are in the entertainment business, if they work in clubs, particularly in the days when there was smoking allowed, have been inhaling smoke for years. I think in truth at least half the cases of lung cancer in non-smokers are the sad situation where their parents smoked or their loved ones smoked or they worked in a smoky environment."
Lung cancer symptoms - shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing up blood - occur in only about one-quarter of the cases. The cancer claims its victims quickly. Only fifteen percent of those diagnosed with the disease survive as long as five years. Some researchers recommend people at high risk have a special CT scan.
However, other experts are awaiting the results of a large-scale clinical trial of such imaging tests currently underway. Until early diagnosis is possible, American Cancer Society official Len Lichtenfeld advises this simple strategy.
"It is to not smoke in the first place, and then of course, if you are smokers to stop smoking. If there is some good that comes out of the situation with Ms. Reeve, it is a reminder that this is a disease that for many people can be prevented and unfortunately as in Ms. Reeve's case it is a situation where that was not the case."
174,000 new cases of lung cancer are predicted in the United States this year. One bit of good news: the death rate among men is declining - a development Dr. Lichtenfeld says is linked to the decreased use of tobacco products.