A risk factor is anything that affects a person’s chance of developing a disease like cancer. Risk factors differ from cancer to cancer, and while some, like smoking, can be changed, others, such as age or genetics, cannot.

Several risk factors can leave you more susceptible to developing lung cancer. Some of the leading lung cancer risk factors include smoking, exposure to radon and asbestos, and personal and family history.

Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco use is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, roughly 80-85% of lung cancers are linked to cigarette smoking. The risk increases with the number of years and packs per day. Quitting at any age can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.

Cigar and pipe smoking are linked to lung cancer. However, the risk may be lower in people who do not also smoke cigarettes. This, of course, varies based on the level of inhalation and quantity smoked per day.

Electronic cigarettes (vapes) are considered by many to be a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. However, there is not enough evidence to support that e-cigarettes work well to help people stop smoking. Additionally, it’s not clear if the ingredients of the vapes could be unhealthy. While they may not be as harmful as traditional cigarettes, the best option is to quit all smoking-related habits.

Non-smokers can still have an increased risk of developing lung cancer if they inhale the smoke of others. This smoke from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars is called secondhand smoke. In 2006 the Surgeon General published a report that stated there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker's chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.

There are several other important risk factors besides tobacco use that increase the risk of developing lung cancer. These factors can cause lung cancer even if you've never smoked or chewed tobacco in your entire life. 

Radon Exposure

Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, making it very hard to detect. These gases can seep into building foundations, living spaces, and working spaces. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer among Americans. It is also the leading cause of non-smokers.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos refers to a set of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. It has been used in a number of different commercial and industrial capacities including roofing shingles, floor tiles, textile products and automotive parts for decades. While the dangers of asbestos exposure are well-known now, there was a time when people were regularly exposed without protection. People who have worked with asbestos, especially without protective gear, are several times more likely to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs). Workers who work with asbestos and smoke are at an even higher risk.

Personal or Family History

If you are a lung cancer survivor, there is a risk that you may develop lung cancer again, especially if you smoke. Your risk of lung cancer may also be higher if your parents, siblings, or children have had lung cancer. It has not been determined how much of the risk is due to shared genes and how much may be from exposure to environmental hazards like tobacco smoke and asbestos or exposure to substances such as radon, chromium, and nickel. However, there are some instances when genetic testing may be appropriate. Your lung cancer specialist at Compass Oncology will talk with you about whether you are a candidate for lung cancer genetic testing.

Other Lung Cancer Risk Factors

There are additional substances, exposures, and lifestyle situations that can also put you at risk for lung cancer. Some of these include:

  • Arsenic, diesel exhaust, and other inhaled chemicals or minerals such as silica, uranium, and chromium
  • Age
  • Previous radiation therapy to the chest
  • Air pollution

Most cases of lung cancer are preventable. By avoiding exposure to risk factors, you can significantly limit your chances of developing lung cancer.