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Former Smokers: What's Your Risk for Lung Cancer?

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You quit smoking years ago—maybe even decades ago—and in the years since, you’ve lived a healthier lifestyle. Still, you can’t help wondering if your old habits might have left you with a higher risk of lung cancer.

The choice to quit smoking is one of the best health decisions you can make. Smoking damages nearly every organ and organ system in the body.

In addition to raising your risk for heart disease, emphysema, stroke, leukemia, asthma, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, smokers are extremely likely to develop cancer, particularly fatal cancers.

“Smoking is both the leading cause of cancer and the leading cause of death from cancer,” says Peggy Lang, MSN, CRNP, coordinator of the Thoracic Oncology Multi-Disciplinary Program at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. “85 percent of lung cancer cases are smoking-related.”

Just living with a smoker increases your chance of developing lung cancer or heart disease from secondhand smoke by as much as 30 percent. All told, smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke cause about 480,000 deaths a year.

According to a 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, quitting before the age of 40 reduces your chance of dying prematurely from a smoking-related disease by 90 percent, and quitting by age 54 still reduces your chance by two-thirds.

Even current smokers who quit after being diagnosed with cancer are better able to heal and respond to treatment, reducing the chance of death from some cancers by up to 40 percent.

Are E-Cigarettes Safe?

Recently, electronic cigarettes have become more popular. These devices deliver a mist of nicotine, liquid and other chemicals and flavorings which is inhaled much like cigarette smoke.

The long-term health effects of e-cigarettes are currently unknown and under research, but studies have shown they produce short-term changes similar to traditional cigarettes. Although e-cigarette manufacturers claim their products are safe, their ingredient lists are often unknown and one FDA study found cancer-causing substances in half the e-cigarette samples tested.

Many samples had other impurities, and one sample included a toxic ingredient found in antifreeze. Additionally, Lang says, e-cigarettes may discourage or “actually prevent patients from quitting, since they can get their nicotine hit in non-smoking areas.”

Cancer Screening Recommendations

As a former smoker, your risk is lower than that of a current smoker, but unfortunately, the risk of cancer remains higher than a nonsmoker.

If you were a heavy smoker, especially if you started at a young age or smoked for a long time, you should have annual lung cancer screenings for at least 15 years, says Lang.

These tests involve low-dose computed tomography scans which use X-rays to take detailed pictures of the lungs. However, due to the small amount of radiation they emit, the scans themselves have a slight cancer risk.

You should discuss your smoking habits, family history and the potential need for screening with your doctor.


Learn more about the Lung Cancer Program.

For information about lung cancer screenings, please call 410-955-LUNG (5864).

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