Lung cancer: Who’s really at risk?

Think you can only get lung cancer if you smoke? Unfortunately, that’s just not true. People who have gone their whole lives without smoking can still get lung cancer. And while quitting smoking is one of the best ways to improve your health and decrease your risk of lung cancer, you’re still at increased risk for decades after you smoke your last cigarette.

Even if you have never smoked, other factors can increase your risk.

  • The primary way you put your lungs at risk is simply by breathing the air around you. Everyone’s lungs are open to the environment, meaning they are affected by what you breathe in. This includes vapors, chemicals and pollutants that may be present in the air. The most common harmful substances are radon, asbestos, arsenic and chromium.
  • You’ve probably heard of the dangers of second-hand smoke. Being around others who smoke can harm your lungs when you breathe in the vapors. If you live with someone who smokes, encourage them to smoke outside to limit your exposure to the fumes.
  • If a family member such as a parent, sibling or child has had lung cancer, your risk may be higher due to similar smoking exposures or other environmental factors.

Take our pledge to love your lungs, and be entered to win a $50 Visa gift card! 

Smoker or nonsmoker, completely avoiding any risk for lung cancer is nearly impossible. Fortunately, we can find lung cancer early with a screening. Similar to a mammography for breast cancer or a colonoscopy for colon cancer, a lung screening can help find early lung cancer before symptoms even develop. A yearly computerized tomography (CT) scan of your chest can detect lung cancer when it’s most curable.

Who should get screened?

We recommend a lung cancer screening for anyone between the ages of 55 and 80 who has smoked at least 30 pack years. To determine pack years, multiply the number of packs smoked per day by the number of years smoking. This includes people who currently smoke or quit smoking within the last 15 years.

How often should someone get screened?

Those at high risk for lung cancer should get screened once a year until they turn 80 years old or until it’s been 15 years since they quit smoking.


Stephen Cattaneo, MD is the medical director of thoracic oncology at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Originally published June 8, 2016. Last updated Aug. 1, 2019.

Leave a Reply