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  • Writer's pictureJaileen Hillard, RN

Lung Cancer: Are you at risk?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. New Mexico ranks in the top tier for new lung cancer rates, with 37 cases per 100,000. Early detection through screening ensures the best outcomes for those affected. The early diagnosis rate in New Mexico falls into the bottom tier. The state still has much work to do to ensure that more of those at high risk for lung cancer are screened.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. The lungs are two spongy organs in your chest that take in oxygen as you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale.

People who smoke are at the most significant risk of developing lung cancer. However, lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked. The risk of lung cancer increases with the time and number of cigarettes you smoke. If you quit smoking, even after many years, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

Lung cancer typically doesn't cause signs and symptoms in its earliest stages. Signs and symptoms of lung cancer usually occur when the disease is advanced.

Signs and symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • A new cough that doesn't go away

  • Coughing up blood, even a tiny amount

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Hoarseness

  • Losing weight without trying

  • Bone pain

  • Headache

What are the causes of lung cancer?

Smoking causes most lung cancers — both in smokers and in people exposed to secondhand smoke. But lung cancer also occurs in people who never smoked and those who never had prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke. In these cases, there may be no clear cause of lung cancer.

How does smoking cause lung cancer?

Healthcare providers believe smoking causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. When you inhale cigarette smoke, which is full of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), changes in the lung tissue begin almost immediately.

At first, your body may be able to repair this damage. But with each repeated exposure, normal cells that line your lungs are increasingly damaged. Over time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally; eventually, cancer may develop.

Types of lung cancer

Healthcare providers divide lung cancer into two major types based on the appearance of lung cancer cells under the microscope. Your healthcare provider will make treatment decisions based on your lung cancer type.

The two general types of lung cancer include:

  • Small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer occurs almost exclusively in heavy smokers and is less common than non-small cell lung cancer.

  • Non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is an umbrella term for several lung cancers. Non-small cell lung cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma.

Risk Factors

Several factors increase your risk of lung cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled, for instance, by quitting smoking. And other factors can't be controlled, such as your family history.

Risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Smoking. Your risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day and the years you have smoked. Quitting at any age can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.

  • Exposure to secondhand smoke. Even if you don't smoke, your risk of lung cancer increases if you're exposed to secondhand smoke.

  • Previous radiation therapy. If you've undergone radiation therapy to the chest for another type of cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

  • Exposure to radon gas. Radon is produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water that eventually becomes part of the air you breathe. Unsafe levels of radon can accumulate in any building, including homes.

  • Exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens. Workplace exposure to asbestos and other substances are known to cause cancer — such as arsenic, chromium, and nickel — can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, especially if you're a smoker.

  • Family history of lung cancer. People with a parent, sibling, or child with lung cancer have an increased risk of the disease.


Lung cancer can cause complications, such as:

  • Shortness of breath. People with lung cancer can experience shortness of breath if the cancer grows to block the central airways. Lung cancer can also cause fluid to accumulate around the lungs, making it harder for the affected lung to expand fully when you inhale.

  • Coughing up blood. Lung cancer can cause bleeding in the airway, which can cause you to cough up blood (hemoptysis). Sometimes bleeding can become severe. Treatments are available to control bleeding.

  • Pain. Advanced lung cancer that spreads to the lining of a lung or another area of the body, such as a bone, can cause pain. Tell your healthcare provider if you experience pain, as many treatments are available to control pain.

  • Fluid in the chest (pleural effusion). Lung cancer can cause fluid to accumulate in the space that surrounds the affected lung in the chest cavity (pleural space).

  • Fluid accumulating in the chest can cause shortness of breath. Treatments are available to drain the fluid from your chest and reduce the risk that pleural effusion will occur again.

  • The cancer spreads to other parts of the body (metastasis). Lung cancer often spreads (metastasizes) to other body parts, such as the brain and the bones.

Cancer that spreads can cause pain, nausea, headaches, or other signs and symptoms depending on what organ is affected. Once lung cancer has spread beyond the lungs, it's generally not curable. Treatments are available to decrease signs and symptoms and to help you live longer.


There's no sure way to prevent lung cancer, but you can reduce your risk if you:

  • Don't smoke. If you've never smoked, don't start. Talk to your children about not smoking to understand how to avoid this significant risk factor for lung cancer. Begin conversations about the dangers of smoking with your children early, so they know how to react to peer pressure.

  • Stop smoking. Stop smoking now. Quitting reduces your risk of lung cancer, even if you've smoked for years. Talk to your healthcare provider about strategies and stop-smoking aids that can help you quit. Options include nicotine replacement products, medications, and support groups.

  • Avoid secondhand smoke. If you live or work with a smoker, urge them to quit. At the very least, ask them to smoke outside. Avoid areas where people smoke, such as bars and restaurants, and seek smoke-free options.

  • Test your home for radon. Have the radon levels in your home checked, especially if you live in an area where radon is known to be a problem? High radon levels can be remedied to make your home safer. For information on radon testing, contact your local department of public health or a local chapter of the American Lung Association.

  • Avoid carcinogens at work. Take precautions to protect yourself from exposure to toxic chemicals at work. Follow your employer's precautions. For instance, if you're given a face mask for protection, always wear it. Ask your healthcare provider what more you can do to protect yourself at work. Your risk of lung damage from workplace carcinogens increases if you smoke.

  • Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables. Choose a healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Food sources of vitamins and nutrients are best. Avoid taking large doses of vitamins in pill form, as they may be harmful. For instance, researchers hoping to reduce the risk of lung cancer in heavy smokers gave them beta carotene supplements. Results showed that supplements increased the risk of cancer in smokers.

  • Exercise most days of the week. If you don't exercise regularly, start slowly. Try to exercise most days of the week.

How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?

The recommended screening test for lung cancer is low-dose computed tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). During an LDCT scan, you lie on a table, and an X-ray machine uses a low amount of radiation to make detailed images of your lungs. The scan only takes a few minutes and is not painful. If there's reason to think that you may have lung cancer, your healthcare provider can order several tests to look for cancerous cells and to rule out other conditions. Other tests may include:

  • Imaging tests. CT scans can reveal small lesions in your lungs that might not be detected on an X-ray.

  • Sputum cytology. If you have a cough and are producing sputum, looking at the sputum under the microscope can sometimes reveal the presence of lung cancer cells.

  • A tissue sample (biopsy). An example of abnormal cells may be removed in a biopsy procedure.

Who Should Be Screened?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly lung cancer screening for people who:

  • Have a 20-pack-year or more smoking history, and

  • Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and

  • Those between 50 and 80 years old.

A pack-year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 20-pack-year history of smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for ten years.

Smokers and non-smokers are at risk of developing lung cancer. Although your current situation may not seem concerning, obtaining optimal health and reducing your concern is our priority. If you have questions or concerns regarding lung cancer, call Reform ABQ for a consultation.

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