Nov 26, 2019 11:00 AM

one healthy lung and one diseased lung

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for both men and women. It claims more lives every year than colon, prostate, ovarian, and breast cancers combined.

People who smoke tobacco have the greatest risk, but people who have never smoked can also get lung cancer. Most cancers cannot be pinned down to one cause. In almost every person with lung cancer, several risk factors are at play.

What are the lung cancer risk factors for non-smokers?

These things can increase your risk of lung cancer—even in people who have never smoked.

  • Air pollution. Low-quality air days and ongoing exposure to diesel fumes, smog, and fire smoke can raise your cancer risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) says air pollution is the most important environmental cause of cancer—in the same dangerous category as asbestos and radon.
  • Second-hand smoke. When living or working with cigarette smokers, non-smokers breathe the same cancer-causing chemicals as the smokers do. This raises lung cancer risk in non-smokers by 25%. Second-hand smoke exposures could date back to childhood.
  • Radon. This radioactive gas is invisible, odorless, and tasteless, and it increases lung cancer risk. In the Mountain West, many homes have radon gas at dangerous levels. Home radon tests are inexpensive, and there are ways to remedy the radon levels. Learn more about how to test your home for radon.
  • Asbestos and other substances. Asbestos is a mineral used in many industries. It’s made of tiny, easy-to-inhale fibers. People who have worked in shipbuilding, brake repair, insulation, plumbing, and construction can be exposed to asbestos. Inhaling asbestos and other substances such as arsenic, chromium, nickel, soot, and tar can increase lung cancer risk.
  • Most people with lung cancer are older than 65. Yet for non-smokers, especially women, lung cancer can happen much earlier in life.

Having other lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a personal or family history of lung or other cancers also add to lung cancer risk for non-smokers.

How can non-smokers reduce their lung cancer risk?

Some factors cannot be changed, such as existing lung disease, prior cancers, and family history of lung cancer. But you can still take steps to lower your risk.

  • When air pollution levels are high, avoid exercising outside.
  • Test your home for radon every two years. Radon kits are available at low cost and sometimes free. If radon levels in your home are higher than 4.0 Ci/L, get a radon mitigation system installed. Learn more at
  • If asbestos products such as old ceiling tile or insulation are in your home, have it removed by a professional asbestos removal services.
  • Wear the right gear at work to prevent exposure to harmful substances.

What are the signs of lung cancer?

Lung cancer can grow for years without causing symptoms. For this reason, it is often not diagnosed until it is at an advanced stage. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Ongoing upper respiratory infections
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Blood in your sputum
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness

You may have these symptoms and not have lung cancer. The rule of thumb is to know your body and watch for unusual changes. Talk with your doctor at a check-up if you have any of the risk factors or exposures even if you don’t feel any symptoms. If you do get lung cancer, this may help you and your doctor find it in early stages, when the treatments are more effective.

Learn more about lung cancer.

lung cancer radon tobacco

Cancer touches all of us.

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