Health & Medical Lung Health

Former Smokers at Risk for Lung Cancer Decades Later

Updated December 04, 2014.

I'm often surprised by the response I get when I mention that the majority of people who develop lung cancer now are non-smokers. "What? You've gotta be kidding! Where did you hear that?"

Yet it's true. Lung cancer occurs more often in people who've already kicked the habit -- and that act of courage may have occurred well in the past.

A new study gives us numbers to talk about. Researchers looked at over 600 people who were referred for lung cancer surgery and who were asked the question; "Did you smoke, and if so, when did you quit?"

Of these patients 77% had a history of smoking in the past, but only 11% were current smokers. The "average" patient had quit smoking 18 years before the diagnosis of lung cancer. The former smokers were broken down further by how long they had been "smoking abstinent":
  • 14% had been smoke free for less than a year
  • 27% were smoke free for 1 to 10 years
  • 21% were smoke free for 10 to 20 years
  • 16% were smoke free for 20 to 30 years
  • 11% were smoke free for 30 to 40 years
  • 10% were smoke free for 40 to 50 years

The conclusion was that the majority of patients in this group had been smoke free for more than a decade prior to their diagnosis of lung cancer. It is important to note that this was a group that was referred for surgical treatment of lung cancer, and as such, were likely in the earlier stages of the disease.

Why is this important?

Lung cancer is most treatable in the early stages of the disease. Since we don't have a widely available safe and effective screening test at this time, it's important for individuals at risk to be aware of the symptoms of lung cancer.

It's also important as we work to dispel the stigma of lung cancer. How many of us have tactlessly made a comment about smoking to someone newly diagnosed with lung cancer?

Part of me hesitated to write about this study. I don't want to throw a black cloud over current smokers who are trying to quit. Because even if people who smoked in the past are at greater risk than never smokers for developing lung cancer, quitting makes a difference. What do the statistics say about quitting or cutting down upon subsequent lung cancer risk?

If you smoked at some time in the past (or even if not because never smokers get lung cancer too...), take a minute to become familiar with the symptoms of lung cancer.

Photo: National Cancer Institute, Bill Branson (photographer)


Mong, C. et al. High Prevalence of Lung Cancer in a Surgical Cohort of Lung Cancer Patients a Decade After Smoking Cessation. Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery. 2011. 6(1):10.

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