Kicking the smoking habit today can reduce your risk of lung cancer within hours. Learn more about lung cancer risks and screening.

Are You At Risk for Lung Cancer?

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Ask elementary school students what the number one risk factor for lung cancer is and they’d be able to tell you: Smoking.

While that’s no surprise, environmental factors also play a role. This can somewhat explain lung cancer in nonsmokers, although much of that remains a mystery.

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s responsible for more deaths annually than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined.

Here’s what you need to know about lung cancer risks:

How Smoking Damages Lungs
Smoking is associated with 80 to 85 percent of non-small cell lung cancer in the U.S., according to the Lung Cancer Alliance. Cigarette smoke contains multiple cancer-causing toxins that damage the cells in your lungs. Initially, your body may be able to repair the damage, but over time with repeated exposure, the cells permanently change and can develop mutations that cause cancer to develop. 

Eventually, your body may no longer be able to keep up with the damage. One cancer cell becomes two, then four, then eight, and so on.  By the time a tumor is about the size of a pea, it already has about 100 million cancer cells.

Quit Smoking, Reverse Lung Damage
The good news is that some of the lung damage from smoking can be reversed when you stop smoking. In 12 hours, the level of carbon monoxide (one of the many toxins in smoke) drops to normal. Within two weeks to three months, lung function improves. In 10 years, your risk of developing lung cancer drops to half that of a current smoker. 

Nonsmokers and Lung Cancer
About 10 to 15 percent of those with lung cancer have never smoked, according to the National Institutes of Health. While we don’t know the exact reason for this, regular second-hand smoke exposes a person to toxins and other carcinogens, which are cancer causing substances, in the environment. This can damage lungs, predisposing them to develop cancer. Lung cancer in never smokers tends to occur more often in women and those who are younger. 

Risk Factors Besides Smoking
Other factors play into the risk of lung cancer. They are:

  • Regular exposure to second hand smoke
  • Family history of lung cancer in a parent, sibling, or multiple relatives
  • Environmental or occupational exposure to carcinogens, such as asbestos, radon, ionizing radiation, silica and coal 

Vaping and Lung Damage

Many who quit smoking and teens substitute e-cigarettes for real cigarettes, thinking they will not damage lungs. While we don’t have enough good quality research to compare the difference in lung damage from electronic cigarettes vs. tobacco, it’s a myth that these are safe. 

Studies have found that e-cigarettes still contain harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde which is considered to be potentially cancer causing. In addition, the FDA doesn’t regulate ingredients in e-cigarettes, so there’s no way to know for certain what they contain. 

Is there a way to detect lung cancer early?
Thankfully, advanced screening with low-dose CT scans can detect lung cancer early, allowing us to treat it when it’s most likely to be effective.

The scan covers the entire chest and provides a more detailed look than a standard chest X-ray. The exam takes about 15 minutes in total, with the actual scan lasting only five to 10 seconds.

Medicare and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend low dose CT lung screening for certain high-risk patients who do not have symptoms of lung cancer. Here’s who’s eligible:

  • Medicare: 55-77 years old, no current symptoms of lung cancer, 30-pack year smoking history (an average of one pack a day for 30 years), current smoker or has quit within the last 15 years
  • USPTF: 55-80 years old with 30-pack year smoking history and is a current smoker or has quit within the last 15 years

Mammograms and colonoscopies have had a tremendous effect on detecting cancer early when it’s most treatable. We hope that deaths from lung cancer will dramatically drop if more people are screened.