Lung cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer that we know about. Between 2003 and 2007, it claimed a reported 792,495 lives, making it even more deadly than colon and rectal cancer, which came far behind in second at 268,783 lives. It’s also not an exceptionally rare form of cancer; for every 100,000 people, statisticians anticipate approximately 55.8 newly diagnosed cases per year.
If you’re like most people reading this, you likely associate lung cancer with smoking, and for good reason; smoking is at least partially responsible for about 30 percent of all cancer deaths, and 87 percent of all lung cancer deaths. On top of that, lung cancer risk is 23 times higher in smokers than non-smokers.
But lung cancer doesn’t develop exclusively in response to smoking. There are other risk factors that you need to know about.
Other Risk Factors
So what are these other risk factors for lung cancer?
- Exposure to radon gas. Though it may be surprising, lung cancer in people who have never smoked is still the sixth-leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Even if you’ve never smoked, your lungs could have been exposed to harmful compounds like radon—a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that often results from the breakdown of uranium in soil. It’s practically undetectable but is prevalent enough to make it the second leading cause of lung cancer cases in the United States, as well as the leading cause in non-smokers. Outside, radon is so dispersed that it’s unlikely to have a negative effect, but indoors, it can accumulate—especially in basements.
- Exposure to asbestos. If you’ve had prolonged exposure to asbestos, which is common in mills, mines, textile plants, and anywhere insulation is used, you’ll be significantly more likely to develop lung cancer. One specific type of cancer, mesothelioma, is especially common in those exposed to asbestos.
- Exposure to harmful industrial compounds. You may also face an increased risk if you’ve been exposed to cancer-causing agents in your home or workplace. There are several potential carcinogenic compounds, including radioactive ores like uranium, as well as compounds like arsenic, cadmium, vinyl chloride, coal products, and chloromethyl ethers, along with others. Inhaling diesel exhaust is also linked to an increased lung cancer risk.
- Exposure to pollution. Prolonged exposure to dense air pollution may increase your cancer risk as well. Fortunately, increased pollution regulations have kept most United States cities relatively clean, but air pollution is still a problem in some urban areas. Check your local pollution levels and be aware that above-average exposure could leave you vulnerable.
- Exposure to arsenic in drinking water. If you live in the United States, you probably won’t have to worry about arsenic in your drinking water, but if you’ve spent any time in Southeast Asia or South America, you might not be as lucky. If you’ve habitually consumed water with higher-than-average levels of arsenic, you may be more likely to develop lung cancer.
- Previous radiation therapy. Radiation causes damage to cells, which can increase the risk of mutation, and eventually, cancer formation. If you’ve had any kind of radiation therapy to the chest for other types of cancer, you might be at higher risk of lung cancer; this risk is compounded if you smoke.
- Family history. As with most other cancers, if you have a family history of this type of cancer, you’ll be more likely to develop it yourself—especially if you’ve breathed in secondhand smoke from family members who smoked habitually. Be wary of your health history, and understand your personal genetic risk.
The Importance of Proactive Screening
Because lung cancer is one of the most serious types of cancer, it’s especially important to detect its development in its early stages. If you feel you’re at increased risk for lung cancer, it’s a good idea to sign up for an early screening—especially if you’re over the age of 55, at which point, you should consider getting screened annually. If caught early, a minimally invasive surgery may be all that’s necessary to prevent the cancer from getting worse.