Breathe in, breathe out: Recognizing risk factors for lung cancer

August 16, 2023 Providence Cancer Team


In this article:

  • August 1 marks World Lung Cancer Day, which has been celebrated annually since 2012. During this day, we pay special attention to lung cancer, raising awareness of the disease, its risk factors for lung health and the importance of early detection.

  • Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in the U.S. But early detection and treatment can greatly increase survival. That’s why recognizing risk factors and screening for lung cancer is so critical.

  • Read on to learn more and join the fight against lung cancer.

According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, accounting for one in five of all cancer deaths. Fortunately, when detected early, lung cancer can be very treatable. In fact, for patients whose lung cancer is found early, five-year survival is almost 56%.

While screening and early detection are critical to lung cancer survival, prevention is also key to stopping lung cancer. More than 238,000 patients are diagnosed with lung cancer every year – prevention can help lower that number in the future.

“The earlier that lung cancer is detected in a patient, the better the chance of them being alive in a few years,” says Dominique Pepper, MD, medical director of Bronchoscopy and Respiratory Care at Providence St Peter's Hospital. “Those with very early-stage lung cancer (stage I) are two to three times more likely to be alive in five years compared to those with late-stage lung cancer (stage III or IV).”

First recognized in 2012, World Lung Cancer Day is a time to increase lung cancer awareness, including risk factors and the importance of screening and early detection. Here are some ways you can recognize World Lung Cancer Day.

Recognizing risk factors

Risk factors are things that increase your risk of developing a disease. Having risk factors for lung cancer doesn’t mean you will develop lung cancer, but they are important to know, track and share with your physician so you know if and when you should consider screening.

Risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • Secondhand smoke exposure
  • Family history of lung cancer
  • Increased age
  • Previous radiation exposure
  • Radon gas, asbestos and other carcinogen exposure

While some risk factors, like a family history of the disease, can’t be changed, others can be controlled, which can help lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Stopping smoking (the leading cause of lung cancer) and limiting exposure to secondhand smoke can significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer.

“Recognizing these risk factors early means a better chance of finding lung cancer, if it develops, through consistent screening before it spreads,” says Dr. Pepper.

The importance of early screening

The goal of lung cancer screening is to catch cancer early before tumors have had a chance to spread, which is often before any symptoms develop. At this stage, lung cancer has more cancer care options available and has a better chance of being cured.

“People should be screened for lung cancer so that they can live longer and spend more time with their loved ones and family,” says Dr. Pepper. He recommends screening for patients 50 to 80 years of age who have smoked a pack a day of cigarettes for 20 years or more (or equivalent), or patients who are still smoking or quit smoking in the last 15 years. Patients who have had a lung nodule detected on previous scans should also consult their provider to see if they need follow-up work to rule out lung cancer.

“Lung cancer screening, when performed correctly, increases both the detection of lung cancer and long-term survival from lung cancer,” says Dr. Pepper. “Unfortunately, less than 10% of people eligible for lung cancer screening actually undergo screening. We have a lot of work to do to educate our communities and encourage them to stop smoking and undergo lung cancer screening.”

Early signs of lung cancer may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Developing a new cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

Lung cancer screening usually involves a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan to take pictures of the lungs. This exam is painless, non-invasive and takes only a few minutes. If your doctor finds suspicious lung nodules, they may perform a bronchoscopy biopsy to detect early-stage disease.

“Work up and biopsy of incidental lung nodules is low hanging fruit for lung cancer detection and allows us to detect five times more lung cancers,” says Dr. Pepper. "We now have the ION robotic bronchoscopy platform to safely and accurately detect lung cancer as small as 8mm, the size of an apple seed."

Tips to prevent lung cancer

While early detection is crucial, preventing lung cancer in the first place leads to even better outcomes. The American Lung Association recommends tips to prevent lung cancer, including:

  • Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Avoiding exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Eating healthy goods
  • Staying physically active
  • Testing your home for radon

Contributing Caregiver

Dominique Pepper, MD, medical director of Bronchoscopy and Respiratory Care at Providence St Peter's Hospital.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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