Risk Factors for Lung Cancer

Many people associate lung cancer with smoking. While it's true that smoking is the leading risk factor, it's definitely not the only one. It's important to learn the risk factors for lung cancer to better protect yourself and let your doctor know if you think you're in a higher risk category. Let's take a look at some of the lung cancer risk factors – some of which may even surprise you. 

Lung Cancer Risk Factor #1: Smoking

According to the American Lung Association, 80-90% of all lung cancer diagnoses can be linked to tobacco. Smoking increases not only your risk of lung cancer, but also other cancers. Inhaling toxins into your body has a direct impact on your lungs, as well as the lungs of people nearby. While even the occasional cigarette can impact your health, the more you smoke, the higher your risk of developing lung cancer. 

Cigarette Smoking

While quitting smoking is certainly the goal, studies indicate that even cutting back on how much you smoke could prove beneficial for your health. One controlled study found that for men smoking up to 20 cigarettes a day, the chance of developing lung cancer was about 3% when considered independently of the number of years smoking. This rate nearly tripled for men who smoked 30 cigarettes per day and went up to 24% for those smoking two packs a day. There is also a connection between the length of time that you smoke and your likelihood of benign diagnosed with lung cancer.

All Minnesota residents have access to support for those looking to quit smoking

Cigars and Pipes

Cigar and pipe smoking also carries some risk for developing lung cancer. Of course, how much you smoke and how long you smoke plays a role in the risk level. While people don't usually chain smoke cigars and pipes (meaning there is less exposure to toxins), it's still not a healthy habit.  

Marijuana Smoking

As Minnesota considers the legalization of marijuana, it's important to know its role in lung cancer diagnoses. Studies show that marijuana smoke has many of the same harmful substances as tobacco and a few additional chemicals that increase the risk of developing lung cancer. Also, because marijuana smokers tend to hold the smoke in their lungs longer than cigarette smoke, the lungs are exposed longer to the chemicals.

Electronic Cigarettes

You may assume that electronic cigarettes are a safe option because you aren't inhaling smoke. However vaping also causes chemical exposure to the lungs that can lead to cancer. Many toxins are found in the liquid used for electronic cigarettes. The vapor carries the chemicals that can cause damage. While more research is needed, there is growing concerned that vaping may have similar long-term effects, including increasing cancer risks.

Second-Hand Smoke

It's important to understand your risk if you are regularly around a smoker. Breathing in air that is contaminated with smoke can have an impact on your health. Compared with those who don't spend time around smokers, your risk increases by 20-30% if you regularly spend time around smokers. If you live or work with a smoker, it's a good idea to ask them to smoke outside, away from the area that you are in. 

Risk Factor #2: Radon Exposure

Radon sounds like it would be artificial, but it's naturally-occurring. This gas is produced when uranium, thorium, or radium, which are often found in soil, rock, and groundwater, begin breaking down. While it is colorless and odorless, it can be very damaging if inhaled over a period of time. Exposure to this gas can wreak havoc on your lungs and be a cause for lung cancer. For more information about radon exposure in Minnesota, visit Minnesota Department of Health. 

Risk Factor # 3: Asbestos Exposure

You may not be aware that asbestos can increase your risk for lung cancer. While this material has been banned, it still exists in some structures. Asbestos may be found in older shingles, tiles, insulation, cinder blocks, pipes, auto parts, and more. 

Generally, if these items remain undisturbed, they do not release the asbestos particles into the air. But when homes and offices are remodeled, those who breathe it are at increased risk. You should have an asbestos removal company, trained in proper removal, come to the worksite. If you're going to do it yourself, be sure you've read up on all the things that are necessary to protect yourself and those around you.

Also, tell your doctor if you ever worked in an industrial environment where there was asbestos in use, even if that was in the 1960s or 70s. There can be long-term effects. It will help the doctor consider a plan for possible lung cancer screening.

Risk Factor #4: Personal or Family History of Lung Cancer

Having a close relative such as a parent, sibling, or child diagnosed with lung cancer may put you at an increased risk. In addition to environmental factors, emerging genetics research shows that some genes and gene mutations increase your risk, which are passed down in families. A combination of genetics and lifestyle factors may explain why some people who smoke get lung cancer and others don't. 

While you can't eliminate all of your risks, you may be able to make lifestyle changes to better your odds. It's also important to know your family history and let your doctor know if you are in a high-risk group. 

Other Risk Factors for Lung Cancer

Other exposures may increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Keep in mind, not as much research has been done about these factors. Other lung cancer risk factors include:

  • Air pollution
  • Household or industrial chemical exposure
  • Radiation therapy to the chest, even if it was some years ago
  • Diesel exhaust, arsenic, and other inhaled chemicals or minerals such as uranium, chromium, and silica 

It's important to be aware of lung cancer risks so you can be an advocate for your health. While you may not be able to control some of the risk factors, you can be aware if you are in a high-risk category, so you can work with your doctor to learn more about proper screening or other measures you should take to protect yourself.