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Your home could be putting you at risk of lung cancer, according to a leading cancer expert

March 14, 2024
< 4 min read
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Dr. Wallace Akerley, medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, encourages all Utah residents to test their homes for radon.

Utah has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, yet oncologists like Dr. Wallace Akerley with the Huntsman Cancer Institute have their calendars full of lung cancer patients. How can this be? The answer is simple: Radon is increasing the risk of lung cancer.

The leading cause of cancer in non-smokers

Lung cancer used to be known purely as a smoker’s disease, but the science behind the number one cause of cancer death in America has made strides. According to Dr. Akerley, lung cancer can now be broken down into nine diseases that can be further broken down into 18 pathways. In just a few years, that could increase to 30–50.

“All of the molecular [lung cancer] breakthroughs occur in patients who don’t smoke,” shares Dr. Akerley. “My interest has been dominated by never-smokers lung cancer, [and] radon is the number two cause of lung cancer.”

Radon is a radioactive gas, and anything radioactive can damage your DNA. This gas is created when uranium in the ground decays, and Utah’s naturally high uranium levels mean we have high radon levels, too. It’s estimated that one in three Utah homes has a high radon level—and most do not know it. Even more, radon levels can fluctuate due to weather, natural disasters, and structural changes in a home, and many people do not know you need to test regularly to avoid radon-induced lung disease.

“Most of the things we deal with in medicine, we’re always talking about a small chance of making a difference. If you’ve got a one in three chance of having a problem in your house today, it's something that you should do something about.” - Dr. Wallace Akerley, medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute

Radon flies under the radar

Lung cancer often goes undetected until it has progressed, especially in those who don’t smoke and think they are safe from environmentally-induced lung cancer. Kamas resident Connie Alexakos was a healthy 75-year-old woman when she was diagnosed with stage four non-smoking lung cancer that metastasized to her liver and bones. “I thought it was allergies,” said Alexakos when discussing her main symptom before diagnosis—a cough that gradually worsened. “[I] finally got to a CT scan and my [doctor] called me immediately and said, ‘You've got to go up to Huntsman. This is more serious. This is not allergies.” 

When Alexakos met with her doctor at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, she asked how she could get risk of lung cancer as a healthy woman who has never smoked. Her doctor explained that radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and encouraged her to test her home for radon. Alexakos was shocked by the response, “You're kidding. What? How could I have never heard [about] this?” She immediately ordered a free radon test and discovered the radon level in her home was 13.0 pCi/L, an equivalent cancer risk to smoking 26 cigarettes a day. 

Connie Alexakos was diagnosed with non-smoking lung cancer in 2023. Her home tested six times higher than the acceptable radon level. 

When asked what she wants Utahns to know about radon, she shared, “That it is the number one cause of [non-smoking lung] cancer. And, by the time you know about it and do something about it, it could be way too late. If I'd known about this at stage one, it could have been a much easier [treatment].” After the diagnosis, Alexakos had her home mitigated by Utah Radon Services. The radon levels decreased from 13.0 pCi/L to 1.4 pCi/L.  

You can take steps to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Most importantly, you can perform a simple, free, and reliable radon test to determine your home’s radon level.

“Most of the things we deal with in medicine, we’re always talking about a small chance of making a difference,”  Akerley noted. “If you’ve got a one in three chance of having a problem in your house today, at this moment, it's something that you should do something about. And it's something I want you to think about more than once over the course of the lifetime of living in a house.”

Risk of lung cancer? Request a free radon test for your home, visit UtahRadon.org.

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