Lung cancer: are you at risk?

Lung cancer is the UK’s biggest cancer killer. It kills more people each year than breast cancer, prostate cancer, bladder cancer and leukaemia combined. But it can be cured if it's caught early enough.

Lung cancer accounts for one in 14 of all deaths in the UK and one in four of all cancer deaths, according to the UK Lung Cancer Coalition (UKLCC). This is a group of leading lung cancer experts, healthcare companies and charities with an interest in the disease, who have joined together to fight lung cancer.

Most cases of lung cancer are in smokers (or ex-smokers), but lung cancer can affect anyone at any age. Smoking is not the only cause, as one in eight people with lung cancer have never smoked a cigarette.

Who’s at risk of lung cancer?

Smoking is the main risk factor for lung cancer. Four out of 10 smokers who start smoking in their early teens and continue to smoke will not live to claim their pension.

There are other risk factors for lung cancer, including:

  • passive smoking (second-hand smoking)
  • exposure to radon gas
  • exposure to asbestos and other chemicals
  • a poor diet 
  • a family history of lung cancer 

What can you do to prevent lung cancer?

Stop smoking

The best way to prevent lung cancer is to quit (or even better, never start) smoking. The sooner you give up smoking, the better. Even if you've been smoking for many years, it’s never too late to benefit from quitting smoking. As soon as you stop smoking your risk of lung cancer starts to reduce. After 15 years, your risk of lung cancer is almost the same as that of a non-smoker.

If you'd like to stop smoking, speak to your GP about how they can help you quit. They'll be able to advise you about nicotine replacement therapies and prescription drugs such as Zyban and Champix, which can increase your chances of quitting successfully. They can also put you in touch with local support groups and stop-smoking advisors.

Read more about how the NHS can help you to stop smoking.

Avoid passive smoking

The risk to your health if you’re a passive smoker increases the more cigarette smoke you're exposed to. It’s estimated that the risk of developing lung cancer is increased by about 20-30% in people who are regularly exposed to other people’s cigarette smoke. Heavy exposure to second-hand smoke in childhood can increase the risk of lung cancer in later life.  

Cigarette smoke in the home is particularly harmful. Even with a window open, the chemicals linger in the air for at least a couple of hours. Ask people to stop smoking around you, and ask friends and family members who smoke to do so outside when they come to your home.

Tackle radon gas in your home

Radon gas is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep from the soil into buildings. It’s thought to cause almost one in 10 lung cancer cases. Most houses in the UK have fairly low levels of radon, but certain parts of the country where there is a lot of granite, such as the West Country and the Peak District, have higher levels.

If you’re worried that you may be exposed to high levels of radon, the Health Protection Agency has information on radon gas. It can also tell you how to reduce exposure by making simple changes to your home to insulate it against radon seeping in.

Improve your diet

Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. They're thought to help prevent many types of cancer, including lung cancer. Aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Read more about eating to prevent cancer.

Exercise regularly

By keeping physically active, you help to keep your lungs healthy. Aim to do half an hour of exercise (walking, jogging, working out at the gym, gardening, swimming and so on) at least five times a week.

Read more about how you can get more exercise.

Protect yourself from asbestos

If you’re a tradesman, such as a builder, electrician, carpenter, plumber, joiner, or plasterer, there’s a good chance you’ll be exposed to asbestos in the course of your work. Make sure you know how to recognise asbestos and how to protect yourself from breathing in the potentially lethal, cancer-causing dust it creates when it is disturbed.

Read more about how to protect yourself from asbestos.

Page last reviewed: 16/05/2013

Next review due: 16/05/2015


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The four main diseases caused by asbestos are mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and plural plaque. In this video, an expert explains the dangers of contact with asbestos, who is most at risk of exposure and what precautions to take.

Media last reviewed: 06/08/2014

Next review due: 06/08/2016

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