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We don’t know what causes each case of lung cancer. But we do know many of the risk factors for these cancers (see Small cell lung cancer risk factors ) and how some of them can cause cells to become cancerous.

Smoking

Tobacco smoking is by far the leading cause of small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Most small cell lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.

Smoking is clearly the strongest risk factor for lung cancer, but it often interacts with other factors. Smokers exposed to other known risk factors such as radon and asbestos are at even higher risk. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, so other factors like genetics probably play a role as well (see below).

Lung cancer in non-smokers

It is rare for someone who has never smoked to be diagnosed with SCLC, but it can happen. Lung cancer in non-smokers can be caused by exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, air pollution, or other factors. Workplace exposures to asbestos, diesel exhaust, or certain other chemicals can also cause lung cancers in some people who don’t smoke.

A small portion of lung cancers occur in people with no known risk factors for the disease. Some of these might just be random events that don’t have an outside cause, but others might be due to factors that we don’t yet know about.

Gene changes that may lead to lung cancer

Some of the risk factors for lung cancer can cause certain changes in the DNA of lung cells. These changes can lead to abnormal cell growth and, sometimes, cancer. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes, which control how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA also can influence our risk for developing certain diseases, such as some kinds of cancer.

Some genes help control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die:

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, or stay alive are called oncogenes.
  • Genes that help control cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Inherited gene changes

Some people inherit DNA mutations (changes) from their parents that greatly increase their risk for developing certain cancers. But inherited mutations alone are not thought to cause very many lung cancers.

Still, genes do seem to play a role in some families with a history of lung cancer. For example, some people seem to inherit a reduced ability to break down or get rid of certain types of cancer-causing chemicals in the body, such as those found in tobacco smoke. This could put them at higher risk for lung cancer.

Other people may inherit faulty DNA repair mechanisms that make it more likely they will end up with DNA changes. People with DNA repair enzymes that don’t work normally might be especially vulnerable to cancer-causing chemicals and radiation.

Researchers are developing tests that may help identify such people, but these tests are not yet used routinely. For now, doctors recommend that all people avoid tobacco smoke and other exposures that might increase their cancer risk.

Acquired gene changes

Gene changes related to SCLC are usually acquired during life rather than inherited. Acquired mutations in lung cells often result from exposure to factors in the environment, such as cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke. But some gene changes may just be random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.

Acquired changes in certain genes, such as the TP53 and RB1 tumor suppressor genes, are thought to be important in the development of SCLC. Changes in these and other genes may also make some lung cancers more likely to grow and spread than others. Not all lung cancers share the same gene changes, so there are undoubtedly changes in other genes that have not yet been found.


Last Medical Review: 02/22/2016
Last Revised: 02/26/2016