A risk factor for lung cancer is anything that may increase a person’s likelihood of developing this condition. Through dedicated research, scientists have identified several lung cancer risk factors. While some of these factors, like a patient’s genetics or medical history, can’t be changed, others can be mitigated through healthy lifestyle adjustments.
Smoking is unquestionably the No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer. Approximately 80% of all lung cancer deaths are thought to be caused by smoking. Cigarettes contain a toxic blend of more than 7,000 chemicals, including a number of carcinogens, and smoking introduces those toxins into the lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cigarette smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer or die from the disease than people who do not smoke. Smoking also increases the risk of getting other cancers, including throat, esophagus, stomach, colon and kidney malignancies, among several others.
While a person’s lung cancer risk goes up with the number of cigarettes they smoke per day and the number of years they have smoked, their risk can go down if they are able to stop smoking. Individuals who want to quit smoking and improve their lung health are encouraged to speak with a doctor about effective quitting strategies and to receive personalized guidance.
People who do not smoke but are frequently around those who do are also at an elevated risk of lung cancer. Inhaling another person’s toxic cigarette smoke is known as secondhand smoke exposure, and it is essentially the same act as smoking a cigarette. Staying away from people while they smoke can help reduce secondhand smoke exposure and lower the risk of lung cancer.
Radon is an odorless, naturally occurring gas that is found in soil and rocks around the world. It is normally present in low levels outdoors, but can collect in large amounts inside houses and buildings through floor cracks, construction joints and gaps in foundations. Prolonged radon exposure is currently recognized as the second leading cause of lung cancer.
Exposure to asbestos
Inhaling asbestos over the course of several years may increase the risk of lung cancer. Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that was once frequently used in various building materials for its resistance to heat and corrosion. While government regulations established in the 1980s have reduced the risk of prolonged asbestos exposure, workers in the construction, firefighting, mining, shipbuilding and military industries may still have some level of exposure.
Lung cancer isn’t generally considered to be a hereditary condition, but a person may have an increased risk of disease if his or her parent, sibling or child has lung cancer. This may possibly be attributed to families often living in similar environments and being exposed to the same substances.
Previous radiation therapy
Having a history of receiving radiation therapy to the chest to treat a previous diagnosis of Hodgkin disease, breast cancer, a separate case of lung cancer or another condition can increase the risk of developing lung cancer in the future. A personal history of lung cancer, even if it was not treated with radiation therapy, is another risk factor.
There is still much to understand about the link between diet and lung malignancies, but taking beta carotene supplements has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer, particularly among smokers. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease lung cancer risk, but this connection is still being studied.
Lung cancer screening at Moffitt
It’s important to keep in mind that although these lung cancer risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing the condition, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop cancer. At Moffitt Cancer Center, we help each patient evaluate their individual lung cancer risk factors and determine next steps. For instance, long-time smokers may benefit from our lung cancer screening program, which is among the best in the nation. In fact, Moffitt has been named a Screening Center of Excellence by the Lung Cancer Alliance.