Lung cancer is the most common cause of death due to cancer in both men and women throughout the world. The American Cancer Society estimates that 219,440 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S. will be diagnosed and 159,390 deaths due to lung cancer will occur in 2009. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, approximately one out of every 14 men and women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer of the lung at some point in their lifetime.
Lung cancer is predominantly a disease of the elderly; almost 70% of people diagnosed with lung cancer are over 65 years of age, while less than 3% of lung cancers occur in people under 45 years of age.
Lung cancer was not common prior to the 1930s but increased dramatically over the following decades as tobacco smoking increased. In many developing countries, the incidence of lung cancer is beginning to fall following public education about the dangers of cigarette smoking and the introduction of effective smoking-cessation programs.
Nevertheless, lung cancer remains among the most common types of cancers in both men and women worldwide. In the U.S., lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women.
What Causes Lung Cancer?
The incidence of lung cancer is strongly correlated with cigarette smoking, with about 90% of lung cancers arising as a result of tobacco use. The risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the time over which smoking has occurred; doctors refer to this risk in terms of pack-years of smoking history (the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day multiplied by the number of years smoked). For example, a person who has smoked two packs of cigarettes per day for 10 years has a 20 pack-year smoking history. While the risk of lung cancer is increased with even a 10-pack-year smoking history, those with 30-pack-year histories or more are considered to have the greatest risk for the development of lung cancer. Among those who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes per day, one in seven will die of lung cancer.
Pipe and cigar smoking also can cause lung cancer, although the risk is not as high as with cigarette smoking. Thus, while someone who smokes one pack of cigarettes per day has a risk for the development of lung cancer that is 25 times higher than a nonsmoker, pipe and cigar smokers have a risk of lung cancer that is about five times that of a nonsmoker.
Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 chemical compounds, many of which have been shown to be cancer-causing or carcinogenic. The two primary carcinogens in tobacco smoke are chemicals known as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
The risk of developing lung cancer decreases each year following smoking cessation as normal cells grow and replace damaged cells in the lung. In former smokers, the risk of developing lung cancer begins to approach that of a nonsmoker about 15 years after cessation of smoking.
Passive smoking or the inhalation of tobacco smoke by nonsmokers who share living or working quarters with smokers, also is an established risk factor for the development of lung cancer. Research has shown that nonsmokers who reside with a smoker have a 24% increase in risk for developing lung cancer when compared with nonsmokers who do not reside with a smoker. An estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths that occur each year in the U.S. are attributable to passive smoking.
Asbestos fibers are silicate fibers that can persist for a lifetime in lung tissue following exposure to asbestos. The workplace is a common source of exposure to asbestos fibers, as asbestos was widely used in the past as both thermal and acoustic insulation. Today, asbestos use is limited or banned in many countries, including the U.S. Both lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura of the lung as well as of the lining of the abdominal cavity called the peritoneum) are associated with exposure to asbestos. Cigarette smoking drastically increases the chance of developing an asbestos-related lung cancer in workers exposed to asbestos. Asbestos workers who do not smoke have a fivefold greater risk of developing lung cancer than nonsmokers, but asbestos workers who smoke have a risk that is 50- to 90-fold greater than nonsmokers.
Radon gas is a natural, chemically inert gas that is a natural decay product of uranium. Uranium decays to form products, including radon, that emit a type of ionizing radiation. Radon gas is a known cause of lung cancer, with an estimated 12% of lung-cancer deaths attributable to radon gas, or about 20,000 lung-cancer-related deaths annually in the U.S., making radon the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. As with asbestos exposure, concomitant smoking greatly increases the risk of lung cancer with radon exposure. Radon gas can travel up through soil and enter homes through gaps in the foundation, pipes, drains, or other openings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. contains dangerous levels of radon gas. Radon gas is invisible and odorless, but it can be detected with simple test kits.
While the majority of lung cancers are associated with tobacco smoking, the fact that not all smokers eventually develop lung cancer suggests that other factors, such as individual genetic susceptibility, may play a role in the causation of lung cancer. Numerous studies have shown that lung cancer is more likely to occur in both smoking and non-smoking relatives of those who have had lung cancer than in the general population. Recently, the largest genetic study of lung cancer ever conducted, involving over 10,000 people from 18 countries and led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), identified a small region in the genome (DNA) that contains genes that appear to confer an increased susceptibility to lung cancer in smokers. The specific genes, located the q arm of chromosome 15, code for proteins that interact with nicotine and other tobacco toxins (nicotinic acetylcholine receptor genes).
The presence of certain diseases of the lung, notably chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is associated with an increased risk (four- to sixfold the risk of a nonsmoker) for the development of lung cancer even after the effects of concomitant cigarette smoking are excluded.
Prior History of Lung Cancer
Survivors of lung cancer have a greater risk of developing a second lung cancer than the general population has of developing a first lung cancer. Survivors of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs, see below) have an additive risk of 1%-2% per year for developing a second lung cancer. In survivors of small cell lung cancers (SCLCs, see below), the risk for development of second lung cancers approaches 6% per year.
Air pollution from vehicles, industry, and power plants can raise the likelihood of developing lung cancer in exposed individuals. Up to 1% of lung cancer deaths are attributable to breathing polluted air, and experts believe that prolonged exposure to highly polluted air can carry a risk for the development of lung cancer similar to that of passive smoking.