As an Ex-Smoker, Am I at Risk for Lung Cancer?

Smokers lung, conceptual artwork

A reader asks: 

I smoked for 20 years and quit smoking 6 months ago. What are the chances I'll get lung cancer in the future?

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer claims more lives than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined every year in the United States.   Approximately 80 percent of lung cancer cases are directly attributable to cigarette (including "light" cigarettes), cigar and pipe smoking.

 The threat of lung cancer is a common fear among smokers and ex-smokers alike.

The fact that you smoked does increase your risk over that of people who have never smoked. However, quitting reduces your risk, so don't ever think that it's futile to stop smoking.  The benefits of smoke-free life extend far beyond the risks we face because we once smoked.

Let's look at what the risk factors are for lung cancer, and whether you should consider being annually screened for lung cancer.

General Risk factors for lung cancer:

The age you were when you started, along with how long and how much you smoked factor into your lung cancer risk assessment.

Secondhand Smoke
Exposure to secondhand smoke increases lung cancer risk. If you live with a smoker or are in an environment where you're breathing in secondhand smoke on a regular basis, this will increase your lung cancer risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that secondhand smoke causes upwards of 3,400 non-smoker lung cancer deaths in the U.S.

annually. Secondhand smoke is extremely toxic air.

A radioactive gas that is a result of uranium in soil and rocks breaking down, radon gas can be a risk when it builds up inside homes.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and the leading cause for non-smokers. It claims approximately 21,000 American lives each year.

Other Substances:

Exposure to these substances can increase lung cancer risk.

Family History
If you've had lung cancer before, you are at an increased risk for a recurrence. If family members have had lung cancer, your risk may be slightly increased.

Radiation Therapy to the Chest
Cancer patients who receive radiation therapy in the chest area have an increased risk of lung cancer.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you'll get lung cancer.

As a former smoker, the chance you'll contract lung cancer is higher than that of someone who has never smoked, but less than it is for someone who is currently smoking.  Statistics tell us that the risk of developing lung cancer for current smokers is 20 times that of non-smokers.

By quitting, you've done the best thing possible to improve your odds. As a former smoker, your risk drops more with every smoke-free year you complete.

Lung Cancer Screening

There is a low dose CT scan that looks for signs of lung cancer available to smokers and ex-smokers in the United States.

It's done once a year and has been shown to save lives by sometimes detecting lung cancer while it is treatable.

If you have health insurance, this test may be covered if you meet certain criteria:

  • You are between the ages of 55 and 74
  • You are a current or former smoker with a minimum of 30 pack years smoking history.
  • If you are a former smoker, you quit within the last 15 years.

If you don't meet the criteria, you can still pay for the test out-of-pocket.  The cost is approximately $300 U.S. dollars.

More on lung cancer screening:  

Should I be Screened for Lung Cancer?

Lung Cancer Screening Assessment Calculator

The Bottom Line:

While none of us can know what the future will bring, it's important not to let worry destroy the quality of life we have today.

If you've recently quit and you're concerned about what the years of smoking have done to your lungs, consider this:

By quitting, you've lowered your risk of getting a wide variety of smoking-related illnesses, including lung cancer. And, with every smoke free day you complete, you're helping your body to recover and halt further damage.

For many people, smoking cessation rewards them with years of robust health and improved longevity.

Keep piling on the smoke-free days and know that your body is doing all it can to repair damage and restore you to the best health possible.  


National Cancer Institute. Lung Cancer Prevention. Accessed April 2016.

American Cancer Society. What are the Key Statistics about Lung Cancer? Accessed April 2016.

American Cancer Society.  What are the Risk Factors for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer? Accessed April 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Household Radon. Accessed April 2016.

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