A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of developing a disease, like cancer. Lung cancer has very specific risk factors, many of which can be lowered by making some changes to your lifestyle. While having one or more risk factors does not guarantee that you will develop lung cancer, knowing that you are at risk may encourage you to make some very important changes.
Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs. As these abnormal cells grow, they can form tumors that prevent the lung from functioning properly. There are two types of lung cancer, non-small cell and small cell lung cancer. The majority of diagnosed cancers are categorized as non-small cell, which generally grows and spreads more slowly as compared to small cell lung cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second most common cancer. Only prostate and breast cancer occur more often. Because of the prevalence of this disease, it is important to understand the behaviors you can alter to lower your risk.
Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for developing lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 87 percent of lung cancer deaths are thought to be the result of smoking. Studies have shown that the longer you smoke and the more you smoke, the greater your chance of receiving a lung cancer diagnosis. Cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoking all contribute equally to an increased risk of lung cancer.
The good news is that quitting smoking before cancer develops allows your damaged lung tissue to gradually repair itself. No matter how many years you have been a smoker, quitting, especially before the age of 50, can drastically reduce your risk of dying from lung cancer within the next 15 years.
Unfortunately, living with or spending time with a smoker can put you at risk as well. Exposure to secondhand smoke can be detrimental to your health. Employees who are exposed to smoke in their workplace also have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than those who work in a smoke-free environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that radon exposure is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. When it is breathed in, it exposes the lungs to small amounts of radiation, possibly increasing a person’s risk of lung cancer. If you are concerned about the radon levels in your home, you can use a radon detection kit to determine if there is a problem.
Your family history can play a role in determining your susceptibility to lung cancer. People who have a parent or sibling who has been diagnosed may have an elevated risk of developing this disease. Research is ongoing to determine the role that genetics play in lung cancer.
Those workers who have been exposed to asbestos and other substances known to cause cancer, such as arsenic, chromium, nickel and tar, are at a high risk of developing lung cancer, especially if they are smokers.
People who tend to drink more than a moderate amount alcohol are at risk for lung cancer as well. You should limit yourself to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. Studies to determine what kinds of foods may lower your risk of developing lung cancer are ongoing.
The best advice is to avoid those behaviors that put you at a high risk for lung cancer. If you are a smoker, there are a variety of resources available to help you stop. Visit your physician should you have any concerns.