Lung Cancer

Are You at Risk?

Lung cancer has always been associated with smoking, and for good reason. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), around 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking. The number is even higher for small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

It’s very rare for someone who has never smoked to have SCLC. 

It’s a smoker’s disease

Even if you’ve never smoked, you can still be at a slight risk for lung cancer. But, in areas like ours with high rates of tobacco use and tobacco-related health issues, it should be considered a smoker’s disease.

“Someone who does not smoke can get lung cancer,” according to Gregory Thompson, MD, a radiation oncologist at Adena Cancer Center. “But it is far, far, far more common in people who smoke.”

Risk factors you can change

You can’t choose the family you’re born into. Nor can you change the family health history that comes with it. But several behaviors that could cause lung cancer that can be changed. These include:

Smoking of any kind – Let’s get this one out of the way first: The risk of lung cancer for smokers is many times higher than for nonsmokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk. This includes cigars and pipes, as well as low-tar, light or menthol cigarettes. Smoking is a lose/lose scenario when it comes to your lungs.

Secondhand smoke – If you don’t smoke, you’re still not out of the smoking vortex just yet. Breathing in the smoke of others (known as secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) can also increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is thought to cause more than 7,000 deaths from lung cancer each year, according to the ACS.

Radon – There’s nothing scarier than a carcinogen you can’t see, taste or small. Radon is just that: a naturally occurring radioactive gas caused by the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country and is the leading cause among people who don't smoke. Radon is far less dangerous outdoors. But indoors, it’s more concentrated. Breathing it in exposes your lungs to small amounts of radiation. Older homes and other buildings in the US can have high indoor radon levels (especially in basements).

Asbestos – If you’ve ever worked with asbestos in mines, mills, textile plants, places where insulation is used, or shipyards, you are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. It’s unclear how much low-level or short-term asbestos exposure might raise lung cancer risk, but people exposed to large amounts have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the lining surrounding the lungs. Government regulations have reduced asbestos in commercial and industrial products, but it can still be found in older homes and other buildings.

Other cancer-causing agents in the workplace – This can include radioactive ores such as uranium, as well as diesel exhaust and inhaled chemicals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds and coal products.

Arsenic in drinking water – Though extremely rare in the US, higher levels of arsenic can be found in other countries’ drinking water.

Risk factors you can’t change

Even if you don’t smoke and lead a healthy life, some risk factors can’t be avoided. These include:

Radiation therapy – If you’ve had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers (such as treatment for Hodgkin’s disease or breast cancer), you are at higher risk for lung cancer.

Air pollution - Air pollution (especially near heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer, but only slightly.

Personal or family history - If you’ve had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer. Brothers, sisters, and children of people who’ve lung cancer may also have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age.

Unproven risk factors

Some risk factors for lung cancer are more myth than scientific fact. These include:

Marijuana – Similar to cigarette smoke, marijuana smoke contains tar and other cancer-causing substances. Marijuana is also inhaled more deeply than tobacco and stays in the lungs longer. A link between marijuana and lung cancer is hard to study because marijuana has been illegal in many places for so long.

E-cigarettes – Although they don’t contain tobacco, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still classifies E-cigarettes as tobacco products. E-cigarettes are still too new to know what the long-term effects might be, including the risk of developing lung cancer.

Talcum powder - Talc is a mineral that, in its natural form, could contain asbestos. Talcum powder is made from talc, but using cosmetic talcum powder has not been found to increase your risk of lung cancer.

Talk to your doctor

If you are worried about lung cancer, the best first step is a conversation with your doctor.

“If someone is concerned they may be at risk for lung cancer and they smoke or have smoked in the past, they can discuss options for tobacco cessation (primary prevention) and lung cancer screening (secondary prevention) with their primary care provider,” says Dr. Thompson. “Or they can call 740-542-LUNG for help.”

Adena offers free lung cancer screenings

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. If caught early, you have a 4 in 5 chance for a cure. That’s why Adena offers free, low-dose chest scans to screen for lung cancer. To qualify for this free screening:

  • You are 50-80 years old.
  • You have a history of smoking at least one pack a day for 20 years, or at least two packs a day for 15 years.
  • You are a current smoker or someone who has quit within the past 15 years.

Call 740-542-LUNG (5864) to schedule your free screening today.