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Lung cancer

Risk factors for lung cancer

While the exact cause of lung cancer may not be known, several factors may increase the risk of developing the disease. Smoking tobacco is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, although people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, too. If you have been smoking for years, you may believe it is “too late” to quit. However, quitting at any point in time reduces your risk for developing lung cancer, as well as other cancers.

General risk factors

Age: About two out of three lung cancers are diagnosed in people over age 65, and most people are older than 45. The average age at diagnosis is 71.

Family history: Genetics may predispose certain people to lung cancer. Individuals with an immediate family member who has or had lung cancer (and who does not or did not smoke) may be more prone to developing the disease.

Smoking and secondhand smoke: Smoking is widely considered the leading cause of lung cancer. For those who don’t smoke but are exposed to smoke at home or work, secondhand smoke may significantly increase their risk of lung cancer.

Exposure to asbestos or other pollutants: Carcinogenic chemicals in the workplace increase lung cancer risk, especially if you smoke.

Exposure to radon: Radon is a colorless, scent-less radioactive gas that is found in some houses and is a leading cause of lung cancer. 

Non-small cell lung cancer risk factors

Genetic risk factors

Family history: A family history of lung cancer may increase your non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) risk. Some evidence points toward a genetic link in a few cases. However, researchers have not determined whether shared environmental or behavioral factors, such as radon gas or smoking, play a greater role in a family’s history of lung cancer than genetics.

Lifestyle risk factors

Tobacco use: Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, pipes or cigars) is linked to more than four out of five cases of all lung cancers. Heavy smokers and those who began smoking at a young age are at an increased risk of developing the disease. It is possible to significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer if you stop smoking.

Secondhand smoke: Even if you don’t smoke, you may be at an increased risk for developing lung cancer if you are exposed to tobacco smoke.

Radon gas: A naturally occurring odorless gas, radon may be found in some houses or buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers exposure to radon gas as the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Kits are available to test for radon in your home or office.

Asbestos: Long-term exposure to asbestos is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. Miners, mill workers or people who may have breathed in asbestos fibers are at a greater risk of developing lung cancer.

Industrial or workplace exposures: Inhaling chemicals or minerals, such as asbestos, arsenic, chromium, nickel, soot or tar may, over time, increase a person’s NSCLC risks. Workers in certain manufacturing or mining industries may have an increased exposure to these chemicals. Diesel exhaust and air pollution may also be harmful.

Previous treatments

A history of lung diseases, including previous lung cancers, may put you at a higher risk of developing the disease. There is also a risk associated with other cancer treatments, like radiation therapy.

Small cell lung cancer risk factors

Genetic risk factors

Family history: Anyone previously diagnosed with lung cancer or anyone with a family history of the disease has an increased risk. In particular, people who inherit chromosome 6 are more likely to develop lung cancer.

Lifestyle risk factors

Smoking: Cigarette smoke is a leading risk factor for small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day for any extended period of time. Smokers who quit before the lung cancer develops live longer than people who continue to smoke. This is because, once a smoker quits, the lungs are capable of repairing the damaged tissue.

Second-hand smoke: Non-smokers who are regularly exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke are also at an increased risk for developing SCLC.

Radon: When uranium breaks down in soil and rock, it releases a naturally occurring radioactive gas called radon. This gas may be found in the basements of older homes or buildings. Exposure to concentrated amounts of radon gas increases a person’s risk for developing SCLC. Test kits that can detect and measure levels of radon are widely available.

Workplace exposure: There are a variety of industries where workers are regularly exposed to carcinogens, such as asbestos, which increases their risk for lung cancer. Other workplace agents that increase the risk for SCLC include radioactive ores, inhaled chemicals or minerals, such as beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride and nickel compounds, and diesel exhaust.

Previous treatments

A history of lung diseases, including previous lung cancers, may put you at a higher risk of developing the disease. There is also a risk associated with other cancer treatments, like radiation therapy.

Metastatic lung cancer risk factors 

Smoking: For smokers, the amount and rate at which you smoke can increase your changes of lung cancer. Because the symptoms often go unnoticed, the chance of the cancer spreading is also high.