A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of developing a disease, such as cancer. Risk factors differ from cancer to cancer. Some, like smoking, can be changed, others, such as age or genetics, cannot.
Several risk factors can increase your chances of developing lung cancer. These include smoking, exposure to radon and asbestos, and personal and family history.
Tobacco use is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, roughly 80-85% of lung cancers are linked to cigarette smoking. The risk increases with the number of years and packs per day. Quitting at any age can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.
Cigar and pipe smoking are linked to lung cancer, however, the risk may be lower in people who do not also smoke cigarettes. This, of course, varies based on the level of inhalation and quantity smoked per day.
Electronic cigarettes (vapes) are considered by many to be a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. However, there is not enough evidence to support that e-cigarettes work well to help people stop smoking. Additionally, it’s not clear if the ingredients of the vapes could be unhealthy. While they may not be as harmful as traditional cigarettes, the best option is quitting all smoking-related habits.
It is important to note that non-smokers still have an increased risk if they inhale the smoke of others. This smoke from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars is called secondhand smoke. A 2006 Surgeon General’s report states there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker's chances of developing lung cancer by 20-30%.
Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, it is very hard to detect. The gas can seep into building foundations, living, and workspaces. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer among Americans. It is the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers.
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. These materials are used in a number of different commercial and industrial capacities including roofing shingles, floor tiles, textile products and automotive parts for decades.
While the dangers of asbestos exposure are now well-known, there was a time when people were regularly exposed without protection. People who have worked with asbestos, especially without protective gear, are more likely to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs). Workers who handled asbestos and smoke tobacco are at an even higher risk.
If you are a lung cancer survivor, there is a risk that you may develop lung cancer again, especially if you continue smoking. Your risk of lung cancer may also be higher if your parents, siblings, or children have had lung cancer. It has not yet been determined how much risk is caused by shared genes versus exposure to environmental hazards like tobacco smoke and asbestos, or exposure to substances such as radon, chromium, and nickel. However, in some instances, genetic testing may be appropriate.
A genetics counselor at New York Oncology Hematology can talk with you about whether you are a candidate for hereditary cancer risk assessment. Call 518-262-1068 to schedule a consultation.
There are additional substances, exposures, and lifestyle factors that can also put you at risk for lung cancer. Some of these include:
Most cases of lung cancer are preventable. By avoiding exposure to risk factors, you can significantly limit your chances of developing lung cancer.