We know that smoking causes lung cancer, but it’s also clear that some people smoke their whole lives and never develop lung cancer. What percentage of smokers get lung cancer?
Lifetime Risk of Lung Cancer in People Who SmokeMost statistics look at the overall risk of lung cancer, combining both people who smoke and those who have never smoked. Based on United States statistics, the lifetime risk that an individual (men and women combined) will develop lung cancer is 6.9%, or 1 in 13 people. Clearly this number would be higher for people who smoke and much lower for people who have never smoked.
Studies in other countries have broken down the risk further to differentiate between never smokers, former smokers, and current smokers.
In a 2006 European study, the risk of developing lung cancer was:
- 0.2% for men who never smoked (0.4% for women)
- 5.5% for male former smokers (2.6% in women)
- 15.9% for current male smokers (9.5% for women)
- 24.4% for male “heavy smokers” defined as smoking more than 5 cigarettes per day (18.5% for women)
An earlier Canadian study quoted the lifetime risk for male smokers at 17.2% (11.6% in women) versus only 1.3% in male non-smokers (1.4% in female non-smokers).
Risk of Lung Cancer Based on Duration of SmokingThe earlier in life you begin smoking, the higher your risk of developing lung cancer. Your risk also depends on the number of “pack-years” you have smoked. A pack-year is a number that is calculated by multiplying the number of years smoked times the number of packs of cigarettes smoked daily.
Quitting Smoking or Cutting Down Lowers the Risk of Lung CancerQuitting smoking lowers the risk of lung cancer, but it can take some time before your risk decreases. If you have smoked for more than a short period of time your risk will never reach that of a never smoker, but it is still very worth the effort to quit. Researchers looking at people in Asia and Australia found that people could reduce their risk of developing lung cancer by up to 70% by quitting smoking.
In one estimate, a 68-year-old man who had smoked two packs per day for 50 years (100 pack years) had a 15% risk of developing lung cancer in the next 10 years if he continued to smoke. This risk would drop to 10.8% if he quit smoking.
Does Cutting Down But Not Quitting Help?The answer is that it may. In one study, it was found that people who smoked more than 15 cigarettes per day could significantly lower their risk if they cut the number of cigarettes they smoked daily in half. Another study was less positive about the cutting down approach, and suggested that quitting altogether was necessary to bring about a significant difference in risk.
Predicting Lung Cancer RiskWhile it is impossible to truly predict who will develop lung cancer, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has developed a Lung Cancer Risk Assessment Tool in which you can calculate your average risk of developing lung cancer in the next 10 years, based on your age and how long you had or have smoked.
The tool is designed for people between the ages of 50 and 75, who smoked between 10 and 60 cigarettes daily for a period of 25 and 55 years. It is preceded by a disclaimer that reminds individuals that the tool is only a prediction based on statistics, and does not mean someone will or will not develop lung cancer.
Smoking after a Diagnosis of Lung CancerEven if you have already been diagnosed with lung cancer, quitting is worth the effort. Quitting smoking if you have lung cancer may improve your response to treatment, and possibly even, survival.
Smoking Risk Goes Beyond Lung CancerAs a final note it is important to point out that smoking is responsible for many conditions in addition to lung cancer.
- Diseases Caused by Smoking
- What Cancers are Caused by Smoking?
- Health Effects of Smoking
- Secondhand Smoke and Lung Cancer
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lung Cancer. Risk Factors. Smoking and Secondhand Smoke. Updated 09/15/10. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/risk_factors.htm
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