skip to main content

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

Doctors cannot always explain why one person develops lung cancer and another does not. However, we do know that a person with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to develop lung cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease.Studies have found the following risk factors for lung cancer:

  • Tobacco smoke:
    Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. In the early 20th century, lung cancer was much less common than some other types of cancer. But this changed once manufactured cigarettes became readily available and more people began smoking.

    About 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk.

    Cigar smoking and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking. Smoking low-tar or "light" cigarettes increases lung cancer risk as much as regular cigarettes. There is concern that menthol cigarettes may increase the risk even more since the menthol allows smokers to inhale more deeply.

    If you stop smoking before a cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you've smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer. People who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who continue to smoke.

  • Secondhand smoke:
    If you don't smoke, breathing in the smoke of others (called secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. A non-smoker who lives with a smoker has about a 20% to 30% greater risk of developing lung cancer.

  • Radon:
    Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and is the leading cause among non-smokers.

    Outdoors, there is so little radon that it is not likely to be dangerous. But indoors, radon can be more concentrated. When it is breathed in, it enters the lungs, exposing them to small amounts of radiation. This may increase a person's risk of lung cancer. In some parts of the country, radon is found in houses. Radon damages lung cells, and people exposed to radon are at increased risk of lung cancer.

  • Asbestos:
    Workplace exposure to asbestos fibers is an important risk factor for lung cancer. Studies have found that people who work with asbestos (in some mines, mills, textile plants, places where insulation is used, shipyards, etc.) are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer from these substances is even higher for smokers. Both smokers and non-smokers exposed to asbestos also have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs).

  • Air pollution:
    In cities, air pollution (especially from heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer slightly. This risk is far less than the risk caused by smoking, but some researchers estimate that worldwide about 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution.

  • Personal or Family history of lung cancer:
    If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer. Brothers, sisters, and children of those who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age.

  • Other cancer-causing agents in the workplace:
    • Radioactive ores such as uranium
    • inhaled chemicals or minerals such as
      • arsenic,
      • beryllium,
      • cadmium,
      • silica,
      • vinyl chloride,
      • nickel compounds,
      • chromium compounds,
      • coal products,
      • mustard gas,
      • chloromethyl ethers,
      • diesel exhaust.

  • Radiation therapy:
    People who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers are at higher risk for lung cancer, particularly if they smoke. Typical patients are those treated for Hodgkin disease or women who get radiation after a mastectomy for breast cancer. Women who receive radiation therapy to the breast after a lumpectomy do not appear to have a higher than expected risk of lung cancer.

  • Arsenic:
    High levels of arsenic in drinking water may increase the risk of lung cancer. This is even more pronounced in smokers.

  • Certain dietary supplements:
    Studies looking at the possible role of antioxidant supplements in reducing lung cancer risk have not been promising so far. In fact, 2 large studies found that smokers who took beta carotene supplements actually had an increased risk of lung cancer. The results of these studies suggest that smokers should avoid taking beta carotene supplements.

  • Factors with uncertain or unproven effects on lung cancer risk:
    • Marijuana
      There are some reasons to think that marijuana smoking might increase lung cancer risk. Many of the cancer-causing substances in tobacco are also found in marijuana. Marijuana contains more tar than cigarettes.
    • Talc and Talcum Powder
      Talc is a mineral that in its natural form may contain asbestos. In the past, some studies suggested that talc miners and millers have a higher risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases because of their exposure to industrial grade talc. Recent studies of talc miners have not found an increase in lung cancer rate.

Source: American Cancer Society - What are the risk factors for non-small cell lung cancer?

Learn more about lung cancer and risk factors

back to top