Lung cancer, the second most common cancer in men and women, is responsible for roughly 13 percent of all new cancer diagnoses, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s also the leading cause of cancer deaths.
Lung cancer includes small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is commonly seen in heavy smokers. Anyone can be diagnosed with lung cancer, yet it’s often associated with smoking.
To understand the connection between lung cancer and smoking, it’s important to understand how smoking impacts the lungs.
Cancer is a disease where abnormal (malignant) cells grow, divide, and then spread in an uncontrolled way. Cell damage is the underlying cause of this change or mutation.
In the case of lung cancer, inhaled smoke, which contain carcinogens, gradually damages the cells lining the lungs. Carcinogens are substances that can alter lung tissue, contributing to the development of lung cancer.
Lung cancer can occur with firsthand smoke, meaning you smoke. It can also occur with secondhand smoke, meaning you don’t smoke, but you might live or work with someone who does.
Smoking and Lung Cancer By the Numbers
- Smoking and secondhand smoke are responsible for about 480,000 premature deaths every year in the U.S. (
National Cancer Institute)
- The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 56 percent, when detected early. (American Lung Association)
- Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women, and the leading cause of cancer deaths. (American Cancer Society)
- Secondhand smoke is responsible for approximately 7,330 deaths from lung cancer each year. (American Lung Association)
- Black men are about 20 percent more likely to have lung cancer than white men. (American Cancer Society)
Even though smoking is associated with lung cancer, it can lead to other types of cancers, too.
These include cancers affecting the back of the mouth, tongue, soft palate, throat, and tonsils. There’s also the risk of developing cancer of the larynx (voice box), trachea (wind pipe), and bronchus.
COPD interferes with airflow from the lungs. It can cause a chronic cough and breathing difficulties.
People who smoke and those exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk for lung cancer because cigarettes and some other tobacco products contain chemicals that can lead to lung damage.
Each time you inhale smoke, you expose your body to more than 7,000 chemicals. Among these chemicals,
A few cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products include:
- ethylene oxide
If you’ve smoked for many years, you might feel that it’s too late to quit. But it’s never too late to give up a smoking habit.
Lung damage from smoking is sometimes repairable. In fact, quitting can actually lower your risk of developing lung cancer in the future, according to the
The NCI also warns that smoking a single cigarette once a day raises the cancer risk. So rather than cut back, resolve to stop altogether. Some people see vast improvements in their lung health within several months of quitting, with their risk of cancer dropping within a few years.
If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, quitting may even result in a better outcome. It can potentially reduce your risk of death by
tips to help you quit
The American Cancer Society recommends the following to help you quit smoking:
- See a professional. A counselor or therapist can help you devise a plan, offer support, and help you succeed over time.
- Plan ahead. Choose a day to quit, add it to your calendar, tell your friends, and start on that day.
- Attend a class. Find a stop-smoking class or support group and attend it so you learn new skills and make a support system.
- Get rid of all your tobacco. Don’t keep any tobacco “for emergencies” or because you already paid for it. Toss it all.
- Ask your friends to help. Having a support system can make any difficult task easier. Create a list of people to call when urges hit.
- Stay busy. Make plans so you have less free time to think about smoking, especially at the beginning.
- Avoid tempting situations. Avoid people who smoke and situations in which you usually smoke.
- Have strategies to get through urges to smoke. Deep breathing, drinking water, taking a walk, and doing something that involves your hands are all good ways to help you stay busy during urges and cravings.
Since you don’t inhale smoke with smokeless tobacco, you might think this is a safer, healthier alternative. This includes chewing tobacco, dissolvable tobacco, and snuff.
However, smokeless tobacco also contains chemicals that cause cancer. You might not develop lung cancer, but you could develop cancer of the mouth, throat, gums, tongue, or lip.
Also, remnants of chewing tobacco could seep down your esophagus into your stomach, putting you at risk for cancer of the stomach.
Some people believe that e-cigarettes (vaping) are also safer than smoking traditional cigarettes since they don’t burn tobacco.
Even though these products don’t contain tobacco, they do contain chemicals found in regular cigarettes such as formaldehyde. These chemicals can also cause lung damage when inhaled, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General warns.
E-cigarettes are a newer product, so more research is needed to measure the long-term health effects of vaping.
The longer you’re exposed to smoking, the greater your risk of developing lung cancer and other respiratory problems. Quitting, however, can lower this risk and improve lung function.
It’s never too late to quit smoking. Several products can help curb an addiction, such as nicotine replacement therapy (nicotine patches and nicotine gum). You can also talk to your doctor about the prescription drug varenicline (Chantix) to help reduce your cravings.