Lung Cancer: Risk Factors
What is a risk factor?
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease. When it comes to cancer, risk factors can be what you eat, where you work, and who your parents are.
Naturally, it’s understandable to worry a little if you have a risk factor for cancer. But keep a few things in mind:
Risk factors can increase a person's chance of getting cancer. But: They are not always the cause of one’s cancer. Often, the exact cause is unknown.
A person with few or no risk factors can develop cancer. But: A person with many risk factors may never develop cancer.
Some risk factors, like family history, are beyond your control. But: Other risk factors, like smoking, are within your power to change.
Smoking and lung cancer
It’s no secret: Smoking tobacco is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. The longer you smoke, and the more you smoke each day, the higher your risk. Cigarettes are the main culprit, but cigar and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause the disease. Smoking is linked to about eight in 10 lung cancer deaths.
For people who smoke, this information might seem overwhelming. Yet, it’s important to know you’re in control of this risk factor. Quitting smoking, even after many years, can substantially lower your risk for lung cancer. Ask your healthcare provider for help quitting.
Other risk factors for lung cancer
While people who smoke tend to be at the greatest risk, those who have never smoked at all can still get lung cancer. Other risk factors include:
Breathing in other people’s smoke increases your own risk for lung cancer. But the truth is, it can be hard to avoid—especially for children of people who smoke. Keeping your home (and car) smoke-free is a great first step to protecting your loved ones.
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. It comes from rocks and soil. Outside, levels of radon are rarely a concern. It becomes an issue when it gathers in the lower parts of buildings, such as basements. People who have lived for a long time in homes with high levels of radon are at a greater risk for lung cancer. Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer in the U.S.
The good news: If your home has high levels of radon, you can fix the problem. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has resources at www.epa.gov/radon.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in rocks and soil. Breathing it in can increase one’s risk for lung cancer.
For years, manufacturers have used asbestos in insulation and other products. As such, people who work with these products face a risk for exposure. Fortunately, standards have been set to lower these risks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has more information at www.osha.gov/asbestos.
Exposure to some chemicals can cause lung cancer. This includes arsenic, silica, coal products, and other chemicals that are mostly found in the workplace. If you work with chemicals, be sure to follow relevant health and safety guidelines.
Air pollution from transportation, industrial fumes, and wildfires can increase one’s risk for lung cancer.
Radiation therapy to the chest
Radiation therapy to the chest can be a necessary form of treatment for diseases like breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma. Unfortunately, patients who have received it are also at a higher risk for lung cancer.
Personal history of lung cancer
People who have had lung cancer are at risk of getting another lung cancer.
Family history of lung cancer
People with a family history of lung cancer have an increased risk for lung cancer. This is especially true if a parent, brother, or sister had it. Some of this risk might be from shared household risk factors, such as tobacco smoke or radon exposure. Some of the risk might also be from shared genes in the family. For instance, some gene changes that run in families have been found to be linked to a greater risk for lung cancer. This can even affect people who have never smoked.
Evaluating your risk factors
Talking with your healthcare provider about your risk factors can bring you greater peace of mind. You may find you can take steps to lower your risk, such as testing your home for radon or avoiding exposure to specific workplace chemicals.
If you’ve smoked for a long time and want to quit, you can always ask your healthcare provider for help. The CDC offers resources. Find out more at www.cdc.gov/tobacco/quit_smoking/index.htm.
If you’re between the ages of 50 and 80 and are a current or former smoker, you may qualify for lung cancer screening. These screenings can sometimes catch the cancer early when it tends to be easier to treat. Ask your healthcare provider if lung cancer screening is right for you.