Lung Cancer

The Top Causes and Risk Factors of Lung Cancer

There are few diseases more frightening than lung cancer, which tends to strike individuals exposed to dangerous air pollutants and which can eventually lead to a situation where the patient struggles with every breath.

Often, we assume lung cancer has been caused by a lifetime of smoking — usually cigarettes, or possibly cigars or marijuana. But it’s very possible to acquire lung cancer without ever smoking a day in your life. It may not even have anything to do with exposure to dangerous pollutants, such as in a factory or resource extraction setting. To better understand lung cancer, let’s take a look at some of this scary disease’s most prevalent causes and risk factors.

1. Family History

One of the most prevalent risk factors for lung cancer, family history (or genetics), is totally out of an individual’s control. Research has shown that, should lung cancer take up a prominent role in shaping your family’s history, there’s a good chance you’ll experience the disease as well. It’s a sobering thought for anyone who has watched a family member experience the trials of this deadly disease.

If you know that people in your family circle have experienced lung cancer, it’s never too early to discuss regular check-ups with your doctor focused on identifying and preventing the disease from taking hold. As is the case with most forms of cancer, success rates are higher when the threat is detected and treated early. Also, don’t assume that a life of avoiding smoking of any and all sorts will prevent lung cancer from affecting you if you have an extensive family history associated with the disease.

2. Advanced Age

Lung cancer is one of those frightening health problems that can affect just about any age group but is far more likely to impact individuals of advanced age — in other words, older adults. In fact, it’s estimated that two-thirds of those people diagnosed with lung cancer are in their late 60s or older.

This is often because individuals of advanced age have been exposed to dangerous air pollutants for a lengthy period of time, either through their work environment or because of personal lifestyle choices, like smoking tobacco or marijuana. However, any adult in their 60s, even those who have never smoked before, should consider regular check-ups with their family physician to look for the signs of lung cancer.

3. Previous Lung Problems

Recovering from a serious illness is reason to celebrate. Unfortunately, experiencing such a health crisis can leave you exposed to related problems down the road. Such is the case with lung cancer, which is often caused by inflammation and scarring in the lungs caused by other pulmonary issues.

Some of these issues that can eventually contribute to the development of lung cancer include tuberculosis — one of history’s most deadly ailments but relatively rare today — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD), chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. If any of these issues has figured into your personal health history, it’s important to work with your family doctor to be on the lookout for the onset of lung cancer.

4. Chest-Based Radiation Treatment

Should you develop a serious health matter that affects your chest, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or breast cancer, there’s a good chance your treatment will include radiation therapy targeting this part of the body.

Unfortunately, while radiation therapy affecting the chest can go a long ways towards helping solve one major health problem, it can significantly increase your chances of developing lung cancer. This risk is only increased if you’re subject to other significant risk factors, including advanced age, a history of smoking, or a family history of lung cancer. For this reason, individuals who received radiation therapy, and especially those whose treatment focused on the chest, should be in regular conversation with their family doctor about identifying signs of lung cancer.

5. Smoking

Although it’s abundantly clear that there are a range of causes for lung cancer, smoking remains the most prevalent of these risk factors. Indeed, a lengthy devotion to smoking cigarettes, cigars, or marijuana can seriously elevate one’s chances of developing a disease that, in time, can make every single breath a serious struggle. Today, smoking remains the number-one risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for roughly 9 in 10 cases.

When you look at what’s inside the average tobacco cigarette, it’s not particularly surprising how much smoking factors into the development of lung cancer. On average, the smoke released from a cigarette contains about 7,000 chemicals, and many of these are carcinogenic, meaning they’re directly tied to the onset of cancer. These cancer-causing agents cause changes in lung tissue — changes that your body may be able to reverse for some time, but not forever. The longer the exposure to these dangerous chemicals, the more likely lung cancer will settle in, resulting in massive health consequences.

6. Secondhand Exposure to Cigarette Smoke

As outlined in this list’s entry on smoking, the smoking billowing from the average tobacco-based cigarette contains an estimated 7,000 chemicals, many of them strongly linked to cancer. As these chemicals flow into the lungs, they begin to manipulate the tissue lining this critical organ. In time, these changes can result in the development of lung cancer.

It’s a scary thought for those who, at some point in their lives, have taken up smoking tobacco. But it should also be alarming for those who have spent considerable time around others who were smokers, such as the spouses or children of people who smoked. It may also be a concern for people who spent time in workplaces where smoking was allowed. Given how long this was the case — with stern anti-smoking legislation only going into place over the last couple decades — it’s no surprise that thousands of Americans die each year because of secondhand smoke.

7. Poor Dietary Choices

You can do a lot of damage to your body by failing to lead a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and at least a moderate fitness regimen. Most people know this, as common problems associated with poor diet and lack of physical exercise include obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

But you may not realize that failing to lead a healthy lifestyle could also make you vulnerable to cancer, and specifically lung cancer. This risk only increases if your lifestyle includes regularly smoking tobacco, excessive consumption of alcohol, and a family history of lung cancer. If a close family member has struggled with this terrible disease, use this as motivation to improve your diet and become more physically active.

8. Radon Exposure

You may have never heard of radon, but it’s worth learning about. Why? Because exposure to this odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas can pose a major health risk and, in time, could lead to the development of lung cancer. Radon emerges when uranium in rocks and soil is broken down, allowing it to be extracted.

Uranium is often used in the creation of nuclear energy and weaponry and is widely considered one of the most dangerous substances on earth. It’s no surprise, then, that radon is particularly dangerous. In the United States, it’s the second-leading-cause of lung cancer behind only smoking tobacco. Of course, your changes of developing lung cancer increase significantly if you’re both a smoker and regularly exposed to radon.

9. Asbestos Exposure

Most people are familiar with asbestos, an industrial material that, for decades, was used as insulation in home and building construction. Asbestos has also been used as a fire retardant. For some time now it’s been known that asbestos is dangerous; today, it’s no longer allowed to use this material for any purposes. Nevertheless, because of its popularity throughout much of the twentieth century, it can still be found in many homes, factories, and office buildings, often in attics, walls, or under flooring.

Left alone, asbestos poses no major health threat, which is why many homeowners have chosen to leave their asbestos untouched and out of the way under floorboards, in crawl spaces, and in unused attics. But even slight disturbance of asbestos can cause the small fibres within it to become airborne and, if those fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious long-term damage to the lungs. It’s why so many people who worked with asbestos years ago struggle with lung cancer and other serious pulmonary ailments. If you know the location of asbestos, take precautions and never try to move it without consulting an expert.

10. Arsenic Exposure

Found in rocks, soil, plants, air, and even water, arsenic is all around us in the environment. Often, it’s released and becomes a health concern when stirred up by agricultural or industrial processes.

Arsenic is a natural element that can be found in rocks and soil, water, air, and in plants and animals. It can also be released into the environment from some agricultural and industrial sources. When it’s extracted, arsenic is often used as a pesticide for treating lumber, which helps you understand why it poses a significant health risk.

Individuals who are exposed to arsenic — often by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food — will find their risk of developing cancer increased significantly. In time, it may result in some of the more deadly forms of cancer, including lung cancer. If you may have been exposed to arsenic because of where you live or the type of work you do, consider speaking with your family doctor to determine your chances of developing lung cancer.

11. Beryllium Exposure

A metal that’s extracted from bertrandite rock, beryllium is lightweight and very resilient and is considered one of the best conductors of both electricity and heat. Even better, it’s non-magnetic. Together, these properties make it very popular among manufacturers in a variety of major industries, from aerospace to energy to even golf (it’s used to make clubs).

Unfortunately, exposure to beryllium poses some serious health problems. This exposure often occurs during the extraction or processing of the metal. Particles released from beryllium are released into the air and, if they enter the lungs, can result in respiratory infections. In time and with prolonged exposure, this problem can lead to even more serious health issues, including lung cancer.

12. Exposure to Diesel Exhaust

For decades, diesel has been a popular alternative to gasoline in helping propel us and our vehicles to and from work, school, the mall, and other common destinations. Many of the world’s most popular automotive companies continue to produce diesel-based engines, largely because diesel tends to be more affordable than gasoline.

Unfortunately, diesel is hardly safer than gas. In fact, extensive exposure to diesel exhaust can pose serious health risks and may even lead to the development of lung cancer. This is a major problem, as diesel is frequently used in far more than just powering the average automobile — it’s also used in commercial trucks, buses, trains, construction and agricultural equipment, generators, and even ocean-faring ships. If you may have been exposed to diesel exhaust as a result of working in any of these industries, it would be wise to talk to your doctor about your risk of developing lung cancer.