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Summer's death puts spotlight on lung cancer risks

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 20: "Queen of Disco" Donna Summer performs onstage on February 20, 1979 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Lung cancer’s sticky stigma as, primarily, a self-inflicted disease prompted Donna Summer’s publicist to release a terse statement Friday to emphasize the singer was “a non-smoker.”

"Various reports currently surfacing about the cause of Ms. Summer's death are not accurate. Although she lost her battle to lung cancer at the age of 63, it was not related to smoking,” said the late singer’s spokesman Brian Edwards.

Updated May 20: While her publicist and family called her a nonsmoker, a msnbc.com reader sent a YouTube video showing the singer holding a cigarette. It’s unclear whether she had been a regular smoker, although even light tobacco use can increase risks.

Tobacco accounts for 87 percent of all lung-cancer deaths. But the same ailment is not exactly rare among nonsmokers: As many as 24,000 Americans who never puffed a cigarette die each year from the illness, the American Cancer Society reports

Singer Donna Summer has died after fighting a long battle with cancer. The five-time Grammy winner rose to the top of the charts during the 70s and arguably did more than anyone to make disco cool. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

Some frightening context: If lung cancer in “never smokers” had its own category separate from lung cancer in smokers, “it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States,” reports the American Cancer Society.

Los Angeles oncologist Dr. Robert Figlin said lung cancer in non-smokers remains “underappreciated in our society, in large part because smoking-related lung cancer has dominated the conversation.”

Worse, early-screening methods -- generally CT scans -- now used to find and treat cancer in the lungs of chronic smokers are not yet ready to use on nonsmokers, Figlin said.

“Those same screening tests … haven’t even been tested as yet in the population of (non-smoking) patients,” said Figlin, associate director of the academic development program and director of the division of hematology/oncology at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles, Calif. 

Even if someone doesn't actively smoke, cancer researchers have identified four primary environmental culprits, including “secondhand smoke,” or breathing in the plumes that smokers exhale. 

After the 2006 death of Dana Reeve -- widow of actor Christopher Reeve -- many observers speculated her illness might have been triggered by her years of singing in smoke-filled nightclubs. The American Cancer Society estimates that 3,400 nonsmoking adults die annually from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Workplace exposure to cancer-causing agents (including chemicals and gases) -- as well as pedestrians, bikers and joggers sucking in small particles of air pollution -- are also believed to prompt some lung cancers in non-smokers.

But it is radon gas – an odorless, radioactive, element rising from uranium deposits and collecting inside homes – that leads to most of the lung cancers that strike down nonsmokers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, radon kills 20,000 Americans annually.  

Gender seems to play a small role, as well. Men who have never torched a cigarette, cigar or pipe have higher death rates than female non-smokers, cancer experts have learned. But there’s an epidemiological flipside to that stat: At ages 60 and above, there are twice as many female nonsmokers as males who never picked up the habit, yet more nonsmoking women are affected by lung cancer, says the American Cancer Society. 

"There's no question, we are seeing more and more men, but mostly women who have never smoked, yet are developing lung cancer," Figlin said.

Still, the stigma remains. "Whether it's a person who smoked or who never smoked, in our society lung cancer has always been associated with the stigma of: 'Well, you did it to yourself,' says Figin.

In his view, the smoking stigma hinders development of more effective treatments for the deadly disease. "If there was some magic wand that we could wave to remove the stigma associated with lung cancer it would help us get people onboard to ask and answer questions ... that could lead to cures," Figin says. 

More on Donna Summer:

Illness, death of 'very private' Donna Summer 'shocked' friends
Donna Summer dead at 63
Video: Donna Summer sings 'Hot Stuff' in 2008 on TODAY

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