Worry as lung cancer strikes non-smokers

Women light  firewood. Experts say women who use wood fuel for cooking and are exposed to its fumes for a long time are at risk of suffering from lung cancer. PHOTO/COURTESY/STOCK

What you need to know:

  • Experts call for regular medical check-ups for early detection.

Scientists at Makerere University Lung Institute have said women in Uganda are at a higher risk of lung cancer because of the high indoor exposure to smoke from wood.

Speaking at an online engagement on Wednesday about lung science, Dr Bruce Kirenga, the director of Makerere University Lung Institute said there are more females who are non-smokers that are reporting with late-stage adenocarcinoma a type of lung cancer that affects glands that secrete mucus, digestive juices, and other body fluids.

“The women who have cancer have no history of smoking but we think that it is because of high indoor exposure to smoke while they are cooking, especially those that use firewood to cook,” Dr Kirenga said. 

In a research study conducted in 2020, lung cancer occurred in approximately 2.2 million patients and caused an estimated 1.8 million deaths, globally.

Dr Kirenga said: “In Uganda, adenocarcinoma is the predominant histologic subtype (growth pattern) of lung cancer and patients are predominantly females, and non-smokers. Patients present late with advanced disease and poor overall survival. Public awareness should be heightened to facilitate early detection and improve outcomes.” 

He added: “The median age of people who suffer from the disease is about 56 years but can go up to 70 years. Only 10 percent were active smokers and the most frequent histological subtype was adenocarcinoma (71 percent). About 91.9 percent of these people had stage IV disease at diagnosis and the median survival time was 12.4 months.” 

Besides the exposure to smoke from wood while cooking, there are other risk factors such as tobacco smoking and exposure to asbestos, radiation, and dust.

It is hard to prevent such a cancer according to Dr Kirenga because it has multiple risk factors. Also, industrialisation increases air pollution, mining and oil extraction activities can cause lung cancer.  As a result, he said screening and and early detection are the best ways to treating the cancer.

However,  Ms Moreen Nalubwama a housewife, said: “Our parents and grandparents used to cook, lived for more than 100 years and did not suffer from any cancer. The fumes from the increasing number of industries could be the cause for this cancer.”

But Dr Kirenga, said: “We are all exposed to lung cancer. There is a lot of air pollution from the dust and fumes from factories. Also, a build-up of radon, a radioactive gas that is naturally released from rocks, water, and soil when inhaled in high levels can cause lung cancer.”

There is usually an overlap of symptoms of lung cancer with other respiratory diseases such as TB, according to Dr Margaret Mbabazi, a research fellow at the institute.

She said the survival of patients is still very poor, adding that lung cancer prevention and early detection programmes should match the profile of patients.