Most people think only smokers or those living with a smoker get lung cancer, but it can happen to anyone! While there’s no way to know who will develop lung cancer in their lifetimes, there are certainly some factors that can increase your risk, making you more likely to get lung cancer than the average person. Some of these factors are well-publicized and possibly even common sense, but others might surprise you.
Lung Cancer Risk Factor #1: Smoking
It comes as no surprise to you that smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. It also increases your risk for many other types of cancers! Those who smoke are regularly inhaling cancer-causing toxins directly into their bodies. The first point of contact is the throat and lungs. According to the American Lung Association, around 9 out of 10 lung cancer diagnoses in the US are connected with cigarette smoking. And that risk goes up--as you'd imagine--based on how many packs you smoke per day/week and how many years you've been smoking.
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 30 daily, went up to 24% for those smoking two packs a day. So even though we'd love to see you give it up entirely, if you can cut your smoking back by half, you could reduce your risk.
The length of time you've smoked appears to play a big role in lung cancer risk as well. The best way to significantly lower your risk is to quit completely, as soon as possible.
Cigars and Pipes
Cigar and pipe smoking also carries some risk, and again depends on how often and how many years. People who only smoke cigars and pipes usually do not "chain smoke" them, which likely explains why their risk is usually lower.
With the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, there are more and more people smoking it. Studies show that marijuana smoke has many of the same harmful substances as tobacco as well as 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.
Many think of e-cigs or vapes as safer because you're inhaling water vapor rather than smoke. But what many people don't realize is that it's not so much the smoke that causes lung cancer but the toxic chemicals found in the vape liquid. Vapor still carries these chemicals. While more research is needed, there is growing concern that vaping may have similar long-term effects, including increasing cancer risks.
All smokers, regardless of what they smoke, are increasing their risks, so it's best not to smoke or vape anything.
Check out some free resources and a cessation program called Courage to Quit available in the Chicago area.
Non-smokers should also be aware of their increased risk if they live, work, or socialize frequently around those who smoke. People have known about the scientifically-confirmed risks of second-hand smoke since at least the 90s. But in 2006, the Surgeon General released a report showing that anyone who is around people who smoke is increasing their risk.
Compared with those who don't spend time around smokers, your risk increases by 20-30% if you regularly spend time around smokers. That's significant!
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.
According to the Cook County Government official site, as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year may be linked to radon. All homes will have some radon levels, and Chicago is considered moderate risk, but a study performed by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency found that 42% of Illinois homes have higher than ideal radon levels. That does not necessarily cause alarm but does increase risk, especially among those who also smoke.
You can't smell, taste, or see radon. However, you can get a free radon testing kit from Cook County Public Health here.
Risk Factor # 3: Asbestos Exposure
You may think you know about asbestos. Isn't it illegal? Surely, you don't live or work around it.
But this substance was once commonly used in construction. And not until 2019 was it fully banned for most uses. While many have been phasing it out since the late 70s to reduce lawsuits, it can still be found today – especially in older buildings
Asbestos is a collective term for a fibrous substance made of tremolite, chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, or actinolite.
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. Here are guidelines for asbestos removal from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Risk Factor #4: Personal or Family History of Lung Cancer
Do you have a parent, sibling, or child who has developed lung cancer? You may be at increased risk. In addition to environmental factors, emerging genetics research shows that some genes and gene mutations increase your risk, and these 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.
At this time, geneticists don't know all of the exact genes that may cause lung cancer, or how much of a role genes play. People who are related are often exposed to similar environments growing up, like siblings who had parents who smoked in the home or a father and daughter, both living in a home with high radon levels. This shared proximity to environmental hazards makes it a little harder to nail down everything that contributes.
You can't eliminate all of your risks. But you can reduce it significantly by paying attention to these top risk factors. In some cases, getting genetic testing may be a good idea to understand your risk better. Our South Chicago lung cancer specialist can discuss with you whether genetic testing makes sense for you.
Other Risk Factors for Lung Cancer
Other exposures may increase your risk but there has not been as much research on these as the first four risk factors listed. 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
We've got good news for you! Even though you can't eliminate all risks, most of these factors are very manageable. When you reduce exposure to risk factors, you can significantly reduce the likelihood that you, and your family, will get lung cancer.
If you or someone you know has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, gathering information about the disease can be very helpful. The lung cancer specialists at Affiliated Oncologists treat patients throughout South Chicago and are here to help guide you through your cancer care journey.