Clearing The Air: Lung Cancer Doesn't Just Happen To Smokers

Peanut butter and jelly. Peas and carrots. Smoking and lung cancer. Some things just go together. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases in the U.S. and Canada are directly attributed to smoking.

“What many people don’t realize is that you don’t have to be a smoker in the true sense of the word to be at greater risk for this disease,” says Claudia Henschke, Ph.D., M.D., co-author of Lung Cancer: Myths, Facts, Choices—and Hope. “If you live with a smoker, smoke occasionally to relieve stress or smoked in the past, you’re at higher risk.”

Here, our experts help you determine your risk on a scale of one to five (five being highest) based on your smoking, or nonsmoking, status, and offer tips for improving it.

You’ve never smoked a day in your life, nor do you live or work with anyone who does.

“Nonsmokers are definitely at the lowest risk for developing lung cancer, but they’re not out of the woods,” says Thomas Glynn, Ph.D., director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society. “Other factors, including heredity and radon exposure, may increase your risk.”

REDUCE YOUR RISK: Henschke says nonsmokers can further reduce their risk by making healthy lifestyle choices and, in areas where radon may be found, making sure their basements are well ventilated. Radon, a radioactive gas, is the second- leading cause of lung cancer.


PROFILE: You don’t smoke daily but light up at social gatherings or when you’re stressed.

“People who smoke at social gatherings or sneak a few cigarettes when life gets a little hectic may not consider themselves ‘real’ smokers, but they’re still putting themselves at real risk,” Glynn says. “The data are pretty clear: As few as one to three cigarettes a day may substantially increase your risk for lung cancer.”

REDUCE YOUR RISK: Try squeezing stress balls, going for a walk or meditating instead of smoking, and don’t bring cigarettes to social events. You still may end up smoking one or two, but you’re likely to smoke less if you have to get cigarettes from someone else. Contrary to popular belief, cigarettes don’t make you less anxious or less stressed. It’s your addiction, Henschke says, that makes you feel better when you smoke. “Nicotine is a stimulant, which means it increases blood pressure, heart rate and respiration,” Henschke says. “Get help to quit. There are some very good programs out there.”

The Secondhand Smoker
Profile: You don’t smoke, but you live with someone who does or work in an environment where you’re regularly exposed to cigarette smoke.

Surprised? “People who live with smokers or work in bars or restaurants where they’re exposed to lots of smoke often don’t realize that they are subjecting themselves to the same
carcinogens that smokers do,” Glynn says.

Studies show that secondhand smoke may cause asthma, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome and heart attacks.

REDUCE YOUR RISK: If you live with a smoker, getting him or her to quit is your best bet for improving your health—and the smoker’s health. And if that doesn’t work? “Ask them to smoke outside,” Henschke says. “Not only will it keep the air in your home fresh, but it may deter them from smoking as often, which can only benefit their health.”

For those who work in smoky environments, ask about changing the policy for the health of the customers and employees. “You can also work with your local heart, cancer or lung association to change the policies in your area,” Glynn says. “If that doesn’t work and finding a new job isn’t an option, get out and get fresh air as often as possible during your shift,” Henschke says. “And have regular checkups with your physician.”

The Former Smoker
Profile: You were a smoker but kicked the habit.

Risk level: 3–4
“Your risk level depends on several things: how much you smoked before and how long you’ve been smoking as well as your lifestyle and genetic factors,” Glynn says. “But no matter what, you’ve made a giant step toward reducing your risk for lung cancer as well as heart disease, stroke and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease].”

REDUCE YOUR RISK: The best thing you can do as a former smoker? “Don’t pick it up again,” Henschke says. “And discuss your smoking and family history with your physician and get guidance on screenings.”

About half of all smokers try to quit in a given year—and fail. “Take care of yourself emotionally and physically to support your efforts. Staying smoke-free is a daily battle for a  ong time,” Henschke says.

The Smoker
Profile: You smoke daily.

“Of the 250 known-to-be-harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, at least 60 can cause cancer,” Glynn says. And not just lung cancer. “Smoking is associated with the development of mouth, kidney, stomach, cervical and pancreatic cancers, among others.”

REDUCE YOUR RISK: Quit. “Nicotine is considered to be even more addictive than heroin or cocaine,” Henschke says. “Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and can last for weeks or even months. But the payoff—a long and healthy life—will be worth it.”

Your best bet for quitting successfully? “Seek professional help. Talk to your doctor about quitting and possible screenings, join a support group at a local hospital, and ask for the support of your friends and family,” Henschke says.

Glynn adds, “And don’t rule out the help of prescription pills and nicotine gums and patches, which can do wonders to relieve your withdrawal symptoms.”
Your Lungs Will Thank You
Almost immediately after you put out your last cigarette, your body begins to repair itself.

Here’s a look at how it happens:
  • 20 minutes: Blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. Circulation improves.
  • 8 hours: Carbon monoxide levels in the blood return to normal. 
  • 24 hours: Chance of heart attack decreases.
  • 2 weeks: Lung function improves.
  • 1–9 months: Chance of pneumonia and cancer begin to decrease.
  • 1 year: Heart attack risk returns to that of a nonsmoker.
“Quitting smoking is a move in the right direction, no matter how long you’ve been smoking or how heavy a smoker you are,” says Cheryl Odell, a registered respiratory therapist at Gwinnett Medical Center’s cardiopulmonary wellness program. “Your body can repair the damage done and improve your health starting immediately.”

FREE Smoking- Cessation Classes
Ready to quit? Join GMC’s monthly smoking-cessation classes. Register online at (search “Freshstart”), or call 678-312-5000.

Source: American Lung Association


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