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One of the best ways to protect your overall health is to protect your lungs. While smoking is a well-known cause of lung damage, many other preventable factors contribute to poor lung health. Knowing what proactive steps to take—and actions to avoid—can help keep your lungs healthy and lower your risk of lung cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimates that lung cancer will cause nearly 132,000 U.S. deaths by the end of 2021, making it the leading cause of cancer death. Over 235,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed by year-end.
Cigarette smoking continues to be the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer. However, healthcare providers worldwide are diagnosing lung cancer in more people who have never smoked cigarettes—about 15% of men and 40% to 50% of women who have lung cancer are never-smokers. In the United States, these numbers trend lower: about 9% of men and 19% of women.
While we don’t yet know the exact cause of lung cancer, we know it’s linked to inflammation, environmental factors, and often ethnicity. Many—but not all—risks can be significantly lowered by patient behavior, such as avoiding smoking, vaping, and pollutants, and getting lung screenings as recommended. Here are five ways you can protect your lung health.
1. Get a lung cancer screening if you meet updated screening criteria.
The earlier lung cancer is detected, the more treatable it is. Screening can reduce the risk of dying from lung cancer by as much as 20%.
In March 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its lung cancer screening guidelines to include patients who:
- Are between ages 50 and 80
- Currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years
- Have a 20-pack-per-year smoking history
If you meet the criteria above—or if you are within the age range and have regularly been exposed to secondhand smoke—request a screening from your primary care provider. You will likely receive a low-dose CT scan, which captures an image of your lungs and nearby organs to help your doctor detect any abnormalities that should be monitored for cancer development.
2. Quit smoking cigarettes.
With at least 80% of lung cancer deaths linked to tobacco smoke, I can’t go without reinforcing this.
In 2018, cigarette smoking among U.S. adults reached a record low of just under 14%. But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to pause the ongoing decline, even though smokers are at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Calls to the national portal that helps people quit smoking steadily declined and cigarette sales slightly increased.
If you have tried to quit smoking in the past, I encourage you to try again. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation resources that will work best for your lifestyle. MedStar Health offers free virtual and in-person counseling and support, and many prescription medications for quitting smoking are covered by insurance.
When combined with lung cancer screening, successful smoking cessation can reduce the risk of dying from lung cancer by 38%. Once you make the decision to quit, we’re here to help you every step of the way.
Despite advances in #LungScreening and treatment, #LungCancer remains the leading cause of cancer death. Here are 5 ways to prevent #LungDamage caused by behavioral and environmental lung cancer risk factors: https://bit.ly/30E1iKe.Click to Tweet
3. Don’t vape—it causes lung inflammation that can lead to cancer.
Vaping has become more popular over the years, and some vaping products have even been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This has led to understandable confusion about the safety of vaping.
Earlier this year, I co-authored a study examining the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes and vaping as smoking cessation tools. Our study showed that they are not effective smoking cessation tools and should be avoided at all costs. While e-cigarettes have lower levels of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), they still deliver toxic substances to the body.
The chemicals within all smoking products create inflammation in the lungs. When lung tissue experiences inflammation, it tries to heal itself. If vaping or smoking continues, this ongoing healing process can cause scarring and lung damage—and lung cancer can arise from scar tissue.
If your doctor asks if you use vaping products, don’t be afraid of any repercussions if the answer is yes. Our goal is to help you be healthy and enjoy life, not shame you. But we can’t do that if you don’t tell us the truth.
4. Avoid exposure to pollution when you can.
Air pollution continues to cause many health issues for people across the globe. And increasing evidence points to a link between air pollution and lung cancer deaths. Patients often wonder what is producing so much pollution—and if there’s anything they can do.
Pollutants found outdoors are most often caused by factors outside of an individual’s control, such as:
- Agricultural pesticides
- Coal and fossil fuel combustion
- Industrial emissions
I encourage patients to focus on what they can control. For example, only exercise outdoors when air pollution levels are safe, and always avoid areas with lots of cars and traffic.
If you live in a heavily polluted area, consider wearing a face mask outdoors—one that can filter air particles, such as an N95 or N99 mask. The American Lung Association also recommends using public transportation more often, using hand-powered or electric lawn care equipment, and not burning wood or trash.
Indoor pollutants contribute to lung cancer risk as well. The two major offenders are:
- Asbestos, a group of minerals used for building insulation in the past. Its risk was discovered decades ago, so it’s much less common today, but if you suspect exposure, talk to your doctor about tests you can get.
- Radon, a radioactive gas that is found outside but seeps into buildings through floors or walls if high levels are within nearby soil or rocks. You can use a kit to detect radon levels in your home or hire a professional to conduct a test. If you’ve been exposed, talk to your doctor. And if you smoke, try to quit immediately, as cigarette smoking combined with radon exposure significantly increases the risk of lung cancer.
Also avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible, which can be difficult if you live with a smoker. Though it may require an uncomfortable conversation, don’t allow smoking in your home or car.
5. Get vaccines that protect against respiratory diseases.
Respiratory diseases, such as the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19, cause inflammation in the lungs. Over time, chronic inflammation can change the way your cells divide, increasing the risk for cancer to develop.
We still have much to learn about the long-term effects of COVID-19. Many patients who were hospitalized for COVID-19 have taken a very long time to recover—after six months to a year, they’re still not back to their baseline.
What we do know is that all forms of the COVID-19 vaccine protect against all strains of the virus. Getting vaccinated is the best way to lower your chances of getting the virus—and of suffering long-term lung consequences we won’t fully understand for years.
The future of lung cancer screening and care.
Advancements in lung cancer screening and treatment have come a long way in recent years, helping to improve patient survival rates. But compared to other common cancers, lung cancer survival rates remain low.
Lung cancer treatment typically involves radiation or chemotherapy, and surgery is also an option for early-stage cancer that has not spread beyond one lung.
However, we’re seeing impressive success with biologic therapies as well—drugs and other substances that reduce the growth and spread of tumors while limiting damage to the surrounding healthy cells. These newer treatments have fewer side effects than more traditional treatment options. Patients tend to tolerate them very well, and I’ve seen improvement in patients’ quality of life for longer periods of time.
Biologic therapies are increasingly being used to treat women of Asian descent between ages 40 and 70—a population experiencing higher rates of lung cancer not linked to cigarette smoking. Many of these patients have a genetic mutation that is responsive to a specific type of biologic.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to test for this mutation before cancer develops, which makes early screening all the more important. If you are within this specific population and have a family member with lung cancer, request a lung cancer screening test so treatment can begin as soon as possible, if necessary.
Take it one step at a time.
Lung cancer is not 100% preventable. But if patients take the necessary steps to reduce their risk, healthcare providers have a better chance of making an early diagnosis and delivering more effective treatment.
The steps I’ve discussed today take effort and determination, but MedStar Health lung specialists are here to support you on your health journey, no matter where you begin.