Lung cancer is the second most common cancer for both men and women, and is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both genders. According to the American Cancer Society, more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
Lung cancer develops when cells in the lungs change, usually due to breathing dangerous substances. Lung cells can change even years after exposure to these substances.
Risk Factors for Developing Lung Cancer
- Smoking. Smoking is the greatest risk factor for lung cancer. It causes 90 percent of lung cancer cases and 80 percent of cancer deaths. The risk increases the more you smoke and the longer you smoke. Cigar and pipe smoking increase the risk nearly as much as cigarette smoking. Menthol cigarettes and low-tar cigarettes also increase the risk. The risk factor from smoking doesn't just affect the person inhaling. Second-hand smoke also increases the chances of developing lung cancer for those around smokers.
- Exposure to Radon. An odorless, colorless, radioactive gas, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon exists naturally in soil and enters buildings through gaps in the structure. In Florida, 1 in 5 residences has radon levels above the EPA action level, according to the state's Department of Health. By comparison, the national figure is 1 in every 15 homes may be exposed to radon, according to the American Lung Association. Radon exposure combined with cigarette smoking significantly increases the risk of cancer.
- Exposure to other hazardous chemicals. Working with (and breathing in) other chemicals — such as asbestos, arsenic and uranium — also increases your lung cancer risk.
- Breathing polluted air. Small particles from air pollution, such as exhaust smoke, can enter our lungs as we breathe, raising the risk of lung cancer.
- Other health issues. Some conditions, such as pulmonary fibrosis and HIV infection can increase the chances of developing lung cancer.
- Family or personal history of lung cancer. Genes may affect the likelihood of developing lung cancer, and if someone in your family has lung cancer, you may have a higher risk.
Preventing Lung Cancer
While it isn't possible to guarantee that you won't develop lung cancer, there are definite steps you can take to reduce your risk.
The most important one is not to smoke. If you don't currently smoke, don't start. And if you do smoke, quit. Also, avoid breathing in second-hand smoke.
Test your home for radon. You can have this done professionally or with a do-it-yourself test available at hardware stores. If your home tests positive for radon, find a radon mitigation service to reduce the level of the gas. Find Florida counties with the highest radon levels on this map that's based on EPA data.
Know your risk factors and talk with your doctor to determine if you should be screened for lung cancer.
Detecting Lung Cancer Early
The majority of early stage lung cancer has no symptoms and is frequently found by accident when getting a chest x-ray or CT scan for another reason.
When people do have symptoms, the most common are cough, coughing blood, shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss.
The earlier any type of cancer is detected, the greater the treatment options available and the better the outcome. But since early stage lung cancer has no symptoms, getting screened if you are at high risk is your best course of action.
If you are between 55 and 77 years old, have a history of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years (or any equivalent), and are a current smoker or quit less than 15 years ago, you should get screened each year. The best screening tool is a low dose CT scan of the chest. This is superior to the chest x-ray in diagnosing lung cancer and reducing the risk of death from lung cancer.
Talk with your doctor if you fit the criteria for lung cancer screening or have a family history of the disease.