Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in the United States for both men and women. But it’s also highly preventable.
“More people die from lung cancer than the next three most common cancers combined,” says Boris Sepesi, M.D., assistant professor in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. “Smoking is responsible for most lung cancer cases in the United States. Eliminating tobacco use is the best way to control this disease.”
Lung cancer happens when cells in the lung grow and multiply uncontrollably. This out-of-control growth damages lung tissue and may stop the lung from working properly. If cancer spreads it may affect other organs.
How smoking causes lung cancer
Smoking is by far the biggest risk factor for lung cancer. There are two ways that smoking damages the lungs and causes cancer.
First, there are roughly 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, and about 150 of them are carcinogens – substances that are known to cause cancer.
Those substances influence the way lung cells grow and divide. Over time, that increases a smoker’s risk for cancer. This cell damage happens every time a person smokes, so even a small amount of cigarette smoke increases your risk.
Second, cigarette smoke inflames the lungs. At first, the lungs try to repair themselves, but over time, they can’t keep up with the damage.
“This ongoing injury to the cells leads to uncontrolled cancer growth over time,” Sepesi says.
It's never too late to quit smoking.
Other risk factors
While smoking causes the majority of lung cancers, there are other factors that can increase your risk.
Even if you don’t smoke, exposure to secondhand smoke damages the lungs and puts you at risk.
Secondhand smoke is the smoke that is exhaled by a smoker or comes off a burning cigarette. People who live with or who are often around smokers are at higher risk.
Exposure to toxins or radiation can also put you at risk. People who are routinely exposed to radon, asbestos, arsenic, air pollution or radiation are at increased risk for developing lung cancer — especially if they are smokers.
Reduce your risk for lung cancer
You can take action to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer. Making the healthy changes below does not mean you will not get lung cancer, but it may lower your chances.
Eliminate tobacco use: “It’s never too late,” Sepesi says. “Even patients who are already diagnosed with lung cancer reduce their risk of dying by 20 to 30 percent if they stop. They have a better chance to tolerate treatment and succeed.”
Avoid secondhand smoke: Exposure to secondhand smoke puts you at increased risk.
Use protective equipment when exposed to dangerous substances and pollutants: Exposure to radon, asbestos, radiation, arsenic and pollution increases your risk.
Take time to discuss your own risks with your health care provider. They can advise you on the screening exams and risk-reduction strategies that are right for you.
Lung cancer screening
If you are a current or former smoker, you may be eligible for a lung cancer screening exam. Screening is not recommended for men and women who never smoked.
You are eligible for a lung cancer screening exam if you are 55 to 80 years old and have a history of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. Lung cancer screening is offered at MD Anderson.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 855-668-8897.