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Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

No one is immune to the possibility of developing lung cancer— and unfortunately, there are several risk factors that can leave you more susceptible than others. While some risk factors are fairly obvious, others are not. Because of this, we encourage you to read through the following information to learn more about the obvious and not-so-obvious factors that can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. 

Tobacco Use

Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, roughly 80-90% of lung cancers in the United States are linked to cigarette smoking. In regards to your lung cancer risk specifically, your risk goes up with the number of years and packs per day you smoke. This means that you can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer the sooner you quit smoking. 

Read our blog: What Does the Great American Smokeout Have to Do with Lung Cancer Risk? 

Although cigar and pipe smoking are also linked to the development of lung cancer, the risk may be lower in people who do not also smoke cigarettes. This, of course, varies based on the level of inhalation and quantity smoked per day. 

Electronic cigarettes (vapes) are considered by many to be a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes; however, there is evolving evidence that vaping can have some long-term effects that are similar to tobacco smoking. In addition to nicotine, e-cigarettes contain other toxic chemicals that can damage the lungs. The best option is to quit all smoking-related habits.

Non-smokers can also have an increased risk if they inhale the smoke of others. This smoke from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars is called secondhand smoke. In 2006 the Surgeon General published a report that stated there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20–30%.

It is never too late to quit tobacco use. The sooner you quit, the more you reduce your risk of developing lung cancer. Watch our video to learn more about the health benefits of quitting smoking. 

Radon Exposure 

Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas that is produced when uranium, thorium, and radium break down in soil, rock, and water. 

The amount of radon exposure you may have depends on the type of rock and soil under your home and/or business (where you spend most of your time). This varies by region. In Virginia, nearly one out of every 15 homes has a radon level the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers to be elevated. The EPA considers 4 pCi/L or greater an elevated radon level. Learn more about radon information by county or get a radon test kit from the Virginia Health Department to test your home. 

Because it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, radon can be very hard to detect. It can seep into building foundations, living spaces, and working spaces, especially if you have cracks in the basement floor or foundation. According to the EPA, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer among Americans and the leading cause of lung cancer among those who do not smoke.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a collective term used to describe six naturally occurring fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. At one time, it was a durable material used in a number of different commercial and industrial capacities, including roofing shingles, floor tiles, insulation, textile products, and automotive parts. Even though the use of asbestos in products has stopped, you can still be at risk for developing lung cancer from previous exposure.

Inhaling particles of any type of asbestos is linked to a higher risk of lung cancer. If you are exposed to asbestos by breathing it in, your body can get rid of some of the fibers, but most of them get trapped in your body’s respiratory or digestive tract permanently. With repeated exposure, asbestos fibers build up in the body’s tissue and cause inflammation and DNA damage. As time passes, the damage causes cellular changes that can result in cancer developing. Asbestos-related cancers, like lung cancer, may take at least 15 years to develop after initial exposure. People who smoke and have asbestos exposure are at an even higher risk of developing lung cancer. 

Personal or Family History of Lung Cancer

If your parents, siblings, or children have had lung cancer, your risk of developing lung cancer increases. Additionally, if you are a lung cancer survivor, you are at risk for developing lung cancer again, especially if you smoke. There is not enough information at this time to determine how much of the risk is due to shared genes and how much may be from exposure to environmental hazards like tobacco smoke and toxic chemicals. With that said, there are some instances when genetic testing may be appropriate. Your Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) lung cancer specialist will talk with you about whether you are a candidate for lung cancer genetic testing.

Other Lung Cancer Risk Factors

While the above factors are the most common, there are other substances, exposures, and lifestyle situations that can also put you at risk for lung cancer. Some of these include:

  • Age
  • Previous radiation therapy to the chest
  • Air pollution
  • Arsenic, diesel exhaust, and other inhaled chemicals or minerals such as silica, uranium, and chromium

Thankfully, most risk factors for developing lung cancer are preventable. By minimizing these, you can significantly limit your chances of developing lung cancer.