By Christina S. Baik, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor, University of Washington School of Medicine
Assistant Member, Clinical Research Division, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
1. Smoking causes the deadliest form of cancer.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer among women (after breast cancer), but it takes almost twice as many lives, making it the deadliest diagnosis a woman will face. With more than 85 percent of all lung cancer cases related to tobacco, smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer increases with the length of time and the number of cigarettes a person has smoked. The disease occurs most frequently among people older than age 50, especially those with a smoking history. Tragically, the majority of people diagnosed with lung cancer will die of the disease, especially if they were diagnosed when the cancer had already spread outside of the lung.
2. Even nonsmokers are at risk.
While heavy smokers are at the highest risk for lung cancer, nonsmokers or former smokers are also at risk. Nearly 60 percent of all lung cancers are diagnosed in people who have already stopped smoking. Exposure to environmental carcinogens can also increase the risk.
If possible limit your exposure to all of the following:
- Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks
- Chemicals or minerals, such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and silica
- Diesel exhaust
- Radiation exposure from occupational, medical, or environmental sources
3. It is not too late to quit smoking and decrease your risk.
According to the American Cancer Society, 20 minutes after you quit smoking, your blood pressure and heart rate decrease. Two to three months after you quit, your lung function and circulation improve; and one to nine months after you quit, you experience less coughing and shortness of breath. Just five years after you quit, your risk of these cancers is cut in half: mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder. Ten years after you quit, your risk of dying from lung cancer is half the risk of someone who is still smoking. Even if you quit smoking at age 65, you can gain an extra four years of life compared with someone of a similar age who continues to smoke cigarettes.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan for high-risk individuals. Women who are 55 to 80 years old and smoked at least an estimated one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years should consider screening.
5. Know the warning signs.
Sadly, lung cancer is such a deadly disease because its symptoms can be easily masked. You should seek medical care if you are coughing up blood or experiencing chest pain, sudden weight loss or loss of appetite, or a chronic cough that won’t go away.
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