If you don’t smoke, you probably don’t spend a lot of time worrying about lung cancer risks. While smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, it’s not the only one. Andrew Nish, MD, explains the lung cancer causes you could be exposed to every day, plus the steps you can take to reduce your risk.
What Causes Lung Cancer Besides Smoking?
Dr. Nish says about 15% of lung cancers in men occur in those who have never smoked and the same is true for 20% of women with lung cancer. Besides smoking, other causes of lung cancer include:
- Radon exposure (second most common cause of lung cancer)
- Secondhand smoke
- Workplace exposure, like asbestos, diesel fumes, etc.
- Air pollution, both outdoor and indoor
- Chest radiation (if you’ve been treated for another cancer in the chest, such as lymphoma)
“Exposure to an external chemical or radiation can cause damage to normal cells in the lung, which increases the risk of those cells dividing abnormally resulting in cancer,” Dr. Nish says.
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Another environmental exposure in the Midwest is arsenic in ground water. Arsenic gets into the ground water and aquifers naturally from dissolving rocks. It’s recommended all private wells be tested for arsenic. Public water systems are tested and safe from arsenic.
Is Lung Cancer Genetic?
Almost all lung cancer is from environmental exposure with less than 10% being from direct inheritance of a genetic mutation.
“Direct genetic inheritance of lung cancer risk is actually quite rare. The development of family lung cancer involves shared environmental and genetic factors among family members. Bottom line, the vast majority of lung cancers are due to environmental exposure,” Dr. Nish says.
How Does Radon Cause Lung Cancer?
Radon is a naturally occurring odorless, colorless radioactive gas that forms from the decay of uranium in the soil and rocks in the ground. Dr. Nish says all Midwestern states have relatively high levels of radon. For example, in Iowa, 7 out of ten homes exceed the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) radon action level of 4 pCi/L. Iowa leads the nation as far as the percentage of homes that exceed 4pCi/L.
“Even though you may not spend a lot of time in your basement, you should be concerned about radon, as it will spread throughout your house. Radon seeps in from the ground and through cracks in the foundation, around pipes and in sump pits. Once in the house, it will spread, resulting in exposure to you and your family,” Dr. Nish says.
The radioactive particles can damage the cells lining the lungs. Then, long-term exposure (as in decades of exposure) can lead to lung cancer.
Testing for radon is the only way to detect radon, as there are no symptoms of radon exposure. Organizations, like the EPA and American Lung Association, recommend testing your home for radon levels. If radon levels are more than 4 pCi/L, then a mitigation system should be installed. For levels between 2 and 4 pCi/L, you should consider installing a mitigation system.
Can You Get Lung Cancer from Second-Hand Smoke?
There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Even brief exposure can be harmful. Secondhand smoke will start taking a toll on your body immediately.
“All secondhand smoke is equally harmful. It doesn’t make any difference whether it came from a cigarette, pipe or cigar. All sources of secondhand smoke carry the same risks,” Dr. Nish says.
Research on secondhand smoke from vaping is less certain than for tobacco, but at this time, we know that secondhand smoke from vaping contains harmful chemicals that could potentially cause lung problems. Research is ongoing.
Dr. Nish also says there are greater risks associated with secondhand smoke in pregnant women and children. Exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight babies, premature birth, learning and behavioral abnormalities in the child and sudden infant death in the infant. Secondhand smoke harms older children as well.
“Children exposed to secondhand smoke have more episodes of pneumonia, bronchitis, wheezing and cough and more ear infections, plus secondhand smoke can worsen existing asthma and can cause new cases of asthma,” Dr. Nish says.
Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms
Dr. Nish says the signs and symptoms of lung cancer are the same whether you are a smoker or not. The top signs of lung cancer include:
- Cough that doesn’t go away or gets progressively worse
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored mucus
- New shortness of breath
- Chest pain that worsens with deep breathing
- Weight loss and decreased appetite
- New wheezing or hoarseness
- Feeling tired or weak
- Recurrent infections, such as chronic bronchitis or pneumonia
“If you experience any of these signs, it’s better to be seen by your primary care provider than assume it’s not lung cancer,” Dr. Nish says.
Should I Get a Lung Cancer Screening?
Lung cancer screening is for high-risk people only. The current recommendation for screening is for you, only if all of the following are true:
- 50-80 years of age
- A 20-pack year smoking history (smoking 1 pack of cigarettes for 20 years or 2 packs for 10 years etc.)
- Current smoker or have quit within the past 15 years
A screening is a test that’s done to detect a cancer before it causes symptoms. Earlier detection means better treatment options in many cases.
The screening for lung cancer is called a low dose computed tomography scan (LDCT). During the scan, an x-ray machine makes detailed images of your lungs. The scan only takes a few minutes and doesn’t hurt.
If you have a history of smoking or currently smoke, talk to your primary care provider to see if a lung cancer screening is for you.
10 Lifestyle Changes to Improve Lung Health
These lifestyle changes are ways to improve your overall lung health and reduce your risk of lung cancer.
- Never smoke. If you do smoke, start the process of quitting immediately.
- Test your home for radon. Radon causes lung cancer, and if unsafe radon levels are found in your home, you should install a mitigation system.
- Avoid secondhand smoke. Avoid all forms, both tobacco sources and vaping, if possible. Children and pregnant woman should especially avoid secondhand smoke.
- Avoid polluted air outside. Limit long exposure to things like car fumes, windblown dust, other allergens, etc.
- Eliminate sources of indoor pollution. These include smoke, gases from paints or cleaning products, building products and more.
- Exercise daily. Increasing your physical activity level improves lung function and capacity.
- Practice good posture. As simple as it sounds, using proper posture also improves lung capacity.
- Perform deep breathing exercises. This, too, improves lung capacity while also reducing stress.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Emphasize six to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. This allows the body to more readily fix damage done to lungs, as well as protects against infections.
- Learn to manage stress and sleep more. As an adult, getting eight hours of good sleep each night is important. This and stress management help our immune systems better fight off infections and potentially eliminate cancers before they become obvious.
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