Smoking increases the risk of developing cancer and other diseases. But what is my risk of lung cancer after I quit smoking? It is clear that quitting smoking reduces this risk. But a lung cancer screening can still be useful.
Quitting smoking reduces your risk of lung cancer, as well as your risk of a variety of other diseases. But you’re still at higher risk than people who have never smoked, explains pulmonologist Dr. Peter Mazzone in a contribution from the Cleveland Clinic (USA).
“If you quit smoking, you significantly reduce your risk of developing lung cancer,” says Dr. Mazzone, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s lung cancer screening program, “but there is strong evidence that your risk will never reach the risk of a person who has not smoked.”
Your total smoking amount is calculated in “pack-years,” which is the number of packs you smoked per day multiplied by the number of years you smoked. For example, all of the following examples correspond to 20 pack years:
- Half a pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years.
- One pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years.
- Two packs of cigarettes a day for 10 years.
Of course, life is rarely that simple, which means calculating pack-years can sometimes be tricky. Maybe you’ve quit smoking for a long time, or you’ve increased (or decreased) the number of cigarettes you smoke per day over the years.
Recommendations for lung cancer prevention
“The younger you are when you start smoking, the heavier and the longer you smoke, the greater your risk of developing lung cancer,” explains Dr. Mazzone. “So the sooner someone is able to stop smoking, the better off they will be – and the lower their risk will be.”
If you are concerned about your risk of lung cancer, make an appointment to speak with a doctor. They will ask you questions like:
- How old were you when you started smoking?
- How much and how often have you smoked on average?
- How long have you been smoking? Were there times when you stopped and then started again?
- How long has it been since you last smoked?
“The answers to all of these questions contribute to your risk,” says Dr. Mazzone.
Who should be screened for lung cancer?
Lung cancer screening is recommended if all three of the following criteria are met:
- They are 50 to 80 years old.
- You have smoked for the equivalent of 20 pack-years or longer.
- You have smoked for the last 15 years.
But many people who should be screened for lung cancer simply don’t get it done. “Lung cancer screenings have been part of standard care for these groups of people in the USA for many years,” says Dr. Mazzone. “However, acceptance of lung cancer screening is still relatively low.”
If you have these symptoms, seek medical advice
You do not necessarily have to meet all three lung cancer screening criteria to be eligible for such an examination. Tell your doctor immediately if you experience the following symptoms:
- A new, persistent cough.
- Coughing up blood.
- Unexplained shortness of breath or chest pain.
- Unintentional weight loss.
“In these cases, you may need to have tests to confirm or rule out the presence of lung cancer,” notes Dr. Mazzone.
Not everyone who has smoked in the past needs screening
Why is lung cancer screening not recommended for everyone who used to smoke? Dr. Mazonne explains that for people at low risk of lung cancer, even those who have once smoked, the risks may outweigh the benefits.
The potential risks and disadvantages of screening include exposure to small amounts of radiation and the possibility of detecting benign (non-cancerous) nodules in the lungs, which can cause unnecessary anxiety.
“We always want to be sure that there is a balance that favors the benefit of screening over the harm,” said Dr. Mazzone.
Prevention after quitting smoking
There is no foolproof way to keep lung cancer at bay, says Dr. Mazzone, but in general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is considered one of the best ways to reduce the risk of developing lung cancer (among many other ailments and diseases).
“We always encourage people to be active, eat healthy, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and so on,” he continues. “We believe that a healthy lifestyle impacts people’s risk of developing lung cancer or their ability to have a better outcome if they do develop lung cancer.”
And remember: By quitting smoking, you have already taken one of the biggest steps towards staying healthy in the long term.
“Your risk of developing lung cancer decreases the further away you are from smoking.” Every day you live smoke-free further reduces your risk of lung cancer. (ad)