01/03/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Chris Draft, NFL Retiree, Buries Wife One Month After Wedding, Sheds Light On Lung Cancer Among Non-Smokers

Lakeasha Monique Rutledge Draft "courageously faced lung cancer, showing us all with every breath that we all need to hold onto life and love with both hands for as long as we can" her husband and former NFL star Chris Draft wrote on his foundation's website last week, honoring his wife who died from lung cancer on December 27, just one month after the couple wed.

The 38-year-old, who was diagnosed with the terminal disease last year, never smoked according to the Daily Mail, joining some 16,000 to 24,000 Americans who die of lung cancer every year even though they have never smoked.

While second-hand smoke is listed as one of the main causes of lung cancer among non-smokers, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the leading cause of lung cancer in the non-smoking group is exposure to radon gas, accounting for about 20,000 deaths each year.

According to the American Cancer Society:

Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Studies have found that the risk of lung cancer is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house.

While it's long been known that both indoor and outdoor air pollution contribute to lung cancer, a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine measured the fine particulate matter that contributes to lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers. Using data from a large American Cancer Society database, the researchers concluded that even tiny amounts of increased carcinogens in air pollution significantly increased the risk. The researchers also noted that in China, where many homes have coal-burning cooking stoves and poor ventilation, lung cancer rates are especially high among nonsmoking women.

With nearly one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. estimated to have high radon levels, the EPA recommends regular testing for the odorless, colorless gas below the third floor of your home.

In addition to environmental factors, a report by Everyday Health in October pointed to ethnicity as a risk factor as well, citing a study which showed that non-smoking African-Americans and Asians who live in Japan and Korea -- but not the United States -- died more frequently from lung cancer than those of European descent.

Non-smoking women also seem to be more vulnerable than non-smoking men. "About two-thirds of the patients with lung cancer who have never smoked are women, usually young women," Joan Schiller, MD, chief of the division of hematology-oncology and deputy director of the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, president and founder of the National Lung Cancer Partnership, and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told Everyday Health.

As with most cancers, early detection and healthy diet are key, with some evidence suggesting that a diet high in carotenoid-rich foods may help protect against lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers.