According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. And while smoking can certainly increase your risk of lung cancer, it's not the only way to develop the disease. Participate in Lung Cancer Awareness month by learning more about lung cancer risk factors and what you can do to protect yourself.
Are You at Risk for Lung Cancer?
Most people know that smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. But did you know that there are other environmental and genetic factors that could also increase your risk? Risk factors for lung cancer include:
- Smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. In fact, approximately 80% of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking. Vaping or the use of e-cigarettes can also increase your risk of lung cancer. Even if you yourself don't smoke, consistent exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke also increases your risk. The longer and more consistently you smoke, the greater your risk of developing lung cancer. However, if you quit — even after years of smoking — you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer in the future!
- Exposure to toxic substances. Regularly breathing air that's polluted by toxic substances or harmful particulates can increase your chances of developing lung cancer. In fact, exposure to radon (a naturally occurring gas that can’t be seen, tasted or smelled) is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Exposure to asbestos and other cancer-causing agents in the home or workplace — such as chromium, arsenic and nickel — can all increase your chances of lung cancer, especially if you already smoke. Even extended exposure to air pollution can increase your risk of the disease.
- Personal or family history of lung cancer. Your risk of developing lung cancer increases if you have a parent, sibling or child with lung cancer. Your risk also increases if you have already had cancer in one lung, or if you previously had chest radiation therapy for another type of cancer.
When to Get Screened
Since lung cancer typically doesn't cause symptoms in its earliest (and more treatable) stages, you can't wait for tell-tale symptoms — such as chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing up blood — to occur before receiving treatment. Early detection is critical in the treatment of lung cancer, which is why your best defense is early screening. If you are at increased risk, your doctor may recommend a yearly, routine lung screening to check for cancer.
El Camino Health offers low-dose CT lung scans — a quick and painless way to get a picture of your lungs using much less radiation than a traditional CT scan — which can detect any abnormalities or lung nodules that could potentially be cancerous. Thanks to charitable donations to the El Camino Health Foundation, we are able to provide free lung cancer screenings for eligible high-risk patients. If a lung nodule is detected, the experts at El Camino Health are here to help. Learn about El Camino Health's Lung Nodule Program, which provides active surveillance of lung nodules and other risk factors for lung cancer.
Tips for Maintaining Healthy Lungs
No matter your current health and lifestyle habits, there are always changes that can be made to improve your lung function. In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, read our tips and consider what you can change to keep your lungs healthy and lower your risk of developing cancer:
- Don't smoke. If you've never smoked, don't start! If you do currently smoke or vape, seek resources to help you stop. No matter your age or how long you've been a smoker, you can still significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer by quitting. Your body begins healing almost immediately from the time of your last cigarette. In fact, within the first few weeks of quitting, not only will your lung function improve, but your heart rate and blood pressure will also lower. Talk to your doctor about strategies and resources to help you quit, such as nicotine replacement products, support groups and medications. Learn more about Tobacco Cessation and Relapse Prevention Counseling at El Camino Health.
- Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals and pollution. On days with high air pollution, try to limit the amount of time you spend outside. Consider other harmful substances you may come in contact with at home or in the workplace — such as radon, asbestos and talc (talcum powder is safe) — and how you can avoid exposure. For instance, if your employer gives you a face mask to wear for protection, make sure to always wear it. If you are concerned about radon levels in your home (or live in an area where radon is a known problem), contact your local department of public health for information on radon testing.
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet. While there aren't necessarily foods known to cause lung cancer, there are certainly vitamins and nutrients you can add to your diet to improve your overall health. Ideally, you should be eating a healthy diet filled with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Eating natural sources of vitamins and nutrients is always preferable to taking vitamins in pill form. If you do smoke, be careful to avoid taking the supplement beta-carotene, which can actually increase lung cancer risk in smokers.
- Live an active lifestyle. Regular cardiovascular exercise can improve your pulmonary function, boost your immune system, reduce inflammation and more. While the exact ties between exercise and decreased lung cancer risk are still being studied, living an active lifestyle is known to keep your body and its cells at their healthiest. Try your best to exercise most days of the week, even if it's as simple as a walk around your neighborhood.
If you are concerned about your risk of developing lung cancer, talk to your doctor to determine if it's time for a screening. At El Camino Health, we offer the latest methods to assess a patient's risk before setting up an individualized screening and prevention plan. Learn more about lung cancer care at El Camino Health.
This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.