November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States. It is preceded only by skin cancer, followed by breast cancer among women and prostate cancer in men. More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. This is true for both men and women. (1)
Lung cancers usually are grouped into two main types called small cell and non-small cell (including adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). These types of lung cancer grow differently and are treated differently. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common than small cell lung cancer. (1)
Many factors contribute to the likelihood of an individual developing lung cancer, including smoking, secondhand smoke, radon, environmental factors and personal or family history of lung cancer.
How Smoking or Secondhand Smoke Effects Risk
Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, causing about 90 percent of cases. Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are known to cause lung cancer. If you still smoke, quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your lung health. (2) People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. The more years a person smokes and the more cigarettes smoked each day, the more risk goes up. (1)
Smokers are not the only ones affected by cigarette smoke. If you are a former smoker, your risk is decreased but has not gone away completely. You can still get lung cancer. Nonsmokers also can be affected by smoking. Breathing in secondhand smoke puts you at risk for lung cancer or other illnesses. (2)
Radon and Lung Cancer
Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer, and it is present outdoors and indoors. It is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. It forms naturally from the decay of radioactive elements, such as uranium, which are found in different amounts in soil and rock throughout the world. Radon gas can move from the ground into the air, underground water and surface water. As radon gases break down, they give off radiation that can cause damage to the DNA inside the body’s cells. Being exposed to radon for a long period of time can lead to lung cancer. (3)
You can check radon levels in your home to determine if you need to take steps to lower them. Do-it-yourself radon detection kits can be ordered through the mail or bought in hardware or home supply stores. The kits are placed in the home for a period of time and then mailed to a lab for analysis. You can also hire a professional to test levels in your home that can be found listed on the EPA website. (3)
Other Lung Cancer Risks
Other risk factors for lung cancer are affected by other substances and personal or family history of lung cancer. Examples of substances found at some workplaces that increase risk include asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and some forms of silica and chromium. For many of these substances, the risk of getting lung cancer is even higher for those who smoke. (1)
If you are a lung cancer survivor, there is a risk that you may develop another lung cancer, especially if you smoke. Your risk of lung cancer may be higher if your parents, brothers or sisters, or children have had lung cancer. This could be true because they also smoke or they live or work in the same place where they are exposed to radon and other substances that can cause lung cancer. (1)
Some of these risk factors can be reduced in the following ways:
- Don’t smoke.
- Avoid secondhand smoke.
- Get your home tested for radon.
- Be careful at work.
Who should be Screened for Lung Cancer?
People who should get screened for lung cancer are adults aged 50 to 80 years who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. A pack-year is a way of calculating how much a person has smoked in their lifetime. One pack-year is the equivalent of smoking an average of 20 cigarettes, 1 pack, per day for a year. (4) It is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes per day by the number of years the person has smoked.
The USPSTF recommends annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT). Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery. (4)
A low-dose CT scan is a special kind of X-ray that takes multiple pictures as you lie on a table that slides in and out of the machine. A study on early detection of lung cancer found that the low-dose cancer screening test can reduce mortality for those at high risk. Medicare and many private health insurance plans cover lung cancer screening without cost-sharing, but eligibility criteria varies based on type of plan you have. Many plans are currently updating their criteria to match new guidelines. (2)
What happens after Lung Cancer Diagnosis?
If you or a loved one are diagnosed with lung cancer, it’s important to know the makeup of your particular lung cancer, including the type, stage or if you have any mutations or biomarkers. This will help your doctor determine all of your treatment options. Many different treatment modalities can be utilized, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and even immunotherapy. Remember that you are not alone.
By taking the time to focus on a healthy lifestyle, each individual can make an attempt to decrease their risk of a lung cancer diagnosis. Seek out additional resources or encourage your family and friends to seek additional resources to help you or a loved one quit smoking. It is never too late to quit. Make sure your home is safe from radon. If you do smoke, speak with your doctor about a low-dose CT scan. We are stronger when we fight together.
Schedule a lung cancer screening today.
- Lung Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors. American Lung Association.
- Radon and Cancer. American Cancer Society.
- Lung Cancer Screening: US Preventive Services Task Force.
Originally Published: November 2021. Updated: October 2022.