Lung Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.

But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors. Even if a person with lung cancer has a risk factor, it is often very hard to know how much that risk factor may have contributed to the cancer.

Several risk factors can make you more likely to develop lung cancer.

Tobacco smoke

Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. In the early 20th century, lung cancer was much less common than some other types of cancer. But this changed once manufactured cigarettes became readily available and more people began smoking.

At least 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk.

Cigar smoking and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking. Smoking low-tar or “light” cigarettes increases lung cancer risk as much as regular cigarettes. There is concern that menthol cigarettes may increase the risk even more since the menthol allows smokers to inhale more deeply.

Secondhand smoke: If you don’t smoke, breathing in the smoke of others (called secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. A non-smoker who lives with a smoker has about a 20% to 30% greater risk of developing lung cancer. Workers who have been exposed to tobacco smoke in the workplace are also more likely to get lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is thought to cause more than 3,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

Some evidence suggests that certain people are more susceptible to the cancer-causing effect of tobacco smoke than others.

If you or someone you care about needs help in quitting, see our document Guide to Quitting Smoking or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

Radon

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country, and is the leading cause among non-smokers.

Outdoors, there is so little radon that it is not likely to be dangerous. But indoors, radon can be more concentrated. When it is breathed in, it enters the lungs, exposing them to small amounts of radiation. This may increase a person’s risk of lung cancer.

The lung cancer risk from radon is much lower than that from tobacco smoke. However, the risk from radon is much higher in people who smoke than in those who don’t.

Radon levels in the soil vary across the country, but they can be high almost anywhere. Homes in some parts of the United States built on soil with natural uranium deposits can have high indoor radon levels (especially in basements). Studies from these areas have found that the risk of lung cancer is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house.

If you are concerned about radon exposure, you can use a radon detection kit to test the levels in your home. State and local offices of the EPA can also give you the names of reliable companies that can test your home (or other buildings) for radon and help you fix the problem, if needed. For more information, see our document called Radon.

Asbestos

Workplace exposure to asbestos fibers is an important risk factor for lung cancer. Studies have found that people who work with asbestos (in some mines, mills, textile plants, places where insulation is used, shipyards, etc.) are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. In workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke, the lung cancer risk is much greater than even adding the risks from these exposures separately. It’s not clear to what extent low-level or short-term exposure to asbestos might raise lung cancer risk.

Both smokers and non-smokers exposed to asbestos also have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs). Because it is not usually considered a type of lung cancer, mesothelioma is discussed in our document called Malignant Mesothelioma.

In recent years, government regulations have greatly reduced the use of asbestos in commercial and industrial products. It is still present in many homes and other older buildings, but it is not usually considered harmful as long as it is not released into the air by deterioration, demolition, or renovation. For more information, see our document called Asbestos.

Other cancer-causing agents in the workplace

Other carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) found in some workplaces that can increase lung cancer risk include:

  • Radioactive ores such as uranium
  • Inhaled chemicals or minerals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds, coal products, mustard gas, and chloromethyl ethers
  • Diesel exhaust

The government and industry have taken steps in recent years to help protect workers from many of these exposures. But the dangers are still present, so if you work around these agents, you should be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.

Air pollution

In cities, air pollution (especially near heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer slightly. This risk is far less than the risk caused by smoking, but some researchers estimate that worldwide about 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution.

Radiation therapy to the lungs

People who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers are at higher risk for lung cancer, particularly if they smoke. Typical patients are those treated for Hodgkin disease or women who get radiation after a mastectomy for breast cancer. Women who receive radiation therapy to the breast after a lumpectomy do not appear to have a higher than expected risk of lung cancer.

Arsenic in drinking water

Studies of people in parts of Southeast Asia and South America with high levels of arsenic in their drinking water have found a higher risk of lung cancer. In most of these studies, the levels of arsenic in the water were many times higher than those typically seen in the United States, even in areas where arsenic levels are above normal. For most Americans who are on public water systems, drinking water is not a major source of arsenic.

Personal or family history of lung cancer

If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer.

Brothers, sisters, and children of those who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age. It is not clear how much of this risk might be due to inherited genes and how much might be from shared household exposures (such as tobacco smoke or radon).

Researchers have found that genetics does seem to play a role in some families with a strong history of lung cancer. For example, people who inherit certain DNA changes in a particular chromosome (chromosome 6) are more likely to develop lung cancer, even if they don’t smoke or only smoke a little. At this time these DNA changes cannot be routinely tested for. Research is ongoing in this area.

Certain dietary supplements

Studies looking at the possible role of vitamin supplements in reducing lung cancer risk have not been promising so far. In fact, 2 large studies found that smokers who took beta carotene supplements actually had an increased risk of lung cancer. The results of these studies suggest that smokers should avoid taking beta carotene supplements.

Factors with uncertain or unproven effects on lung cancer risk

Marijuana

There are some reasons to think that marijuana smoking might increase lung cancer risk. Many of the cancer-causing substances in tobacco are also found in marijuana. Marijuana contains more tar than cigarettes. (Tar is the sticky, solid material that remains after burning, which is thought to contain most of the harmful substances in smoke.) Marijuana cigarettes (joints) are typically smoked all the way to the end, where tar content is the highest. Marijuana is also inhaled very deeply and the smoke is held in the lungs for a long time. And because marijuana is generally an illegal substance, it is not possible to control what other substances it might contain.

But those who use marijuana tend to smoke less marijuana in a day or week than the amount of tobacco consumed by cigarette smokers. For example, a light smoker may smoke half of a pack (10 cigarettes) a day, but 10 marijuana cigarettes in a day would be very heavy use of marijuana. In one study, most people who smoked marijuana did so 2 to 3 times per month. The lesser amount smoked would make it harder to see an impact on lung cancer risk.

It has been hard to study whether there is a link between marijuana and lung cancer because it is largely against the law to smoke marijuana, so people are often reluctant to talk about their marijuana use. Also, many marijuana smokers also smoke cigarettes. This can make it hard to know how much of the risk is from tobacco and how much might be from marijuana. In the limited studies done so far, marijuana use has not been strongly linked to lung cancer, but more research in this area is needed.

Talc and talcum powder

Talc is a mineral that in its natural form may contain asbestos. Some studies have suggested that talc miners and millers might have a higher risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases because of their exposure to industrial grade talc. But other studies have not found an increase in lung cancer rate.

Talcum powder is made from talc. By law since 1973, all home-use talcum products (baby, body, and facial powders) in the United States have been asbestos-free. The use of cosmetic talcum powder has not been found to increase the risk of lung cancer.


Last Medical Review: 06/26/2013
Last Revised: 02/21/2014