Learn why screening and smoking cessation are key in the fight against lung cancer

There’s no denying the connection: Cigarette smoking is the top risk factor for developing lung cancer.

In the United States, cigarette smoking is linked to about 80 to 90 percent of lung cancers. In Pennsylvania, 21 percent of adults age 18 and older are considered smokers.

Dr. David O. Wilson

Dr. David O. Wilson

How can smokers lower their risk of developing lung cancer? Learn more about lung cancer’s relationship to smoking from lung cancer expert David O. Wilson, MD, MPH, of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Find critical information on lung cancer screenings at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

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Q: Is there any way to screen people for lung cancer?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently approved the use of low-dose CT scanning to screen people at high-risk for lung cancer— smokers and recent ex-smokers. This means that most health insurance will cover this test for individuals who fit the profile.

The test is recommended once a year for adults aged 50 to 77 who are smokers with a 20-pack per year smoking history and those who’ve quit smoking within the past 15 years. Some insurance companies have different eligibility requirements for yearly screening.

This screening CT takes only five minutes to perform, yet it can have a major positive impact on public health by providing early detection of lung cancer. That is important when you consider that lung cancer is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, lung cancer has an 80 percent mortality rate. It claims more lives than colon, prostate, and breast cancer combined, and statistics show that more than 50 percent of all lung cancer cases involve ex-smokers.

Is smoking still a significant health issue?

Yes. The health consequences of smoking are enormous. Smoking accounts for 92 to 94 percent of all lung cancers in men and 80 to 82 percent of all lung cancers in women. And second-hand smoke still presents a sizable risk for people who live in homes with a smoker.

One positive note is that adult smoking rates have dropped by more than half in the 50 years since the first Surgeon General’s report was released in 1964. At that time, 43 percent of the population smoked cigarettes; today, it’s about 18 percent. That’s good progress.

On the other hand, there are still more than 40 million Americans who have a dependence on tobacco. And, each day, an estimated 3,200 people under age 18 smoke their first cigarette and another 2,100 young occasional smokers become daily smokers.

So truly, the most single important thing a person can do positively to affect their overall and lung health is to stop smoking right away. Or better yet — don’t start.

“This screening CT takes only five minutes to perform, yet it has the potential to make a major positive impact on public health.” – Dr. David O. Wilson

What about vaping or smoking hookah? Are these good alternatives to cigarette smoking?

There’s not enough data to support the claim that vaping is helpful in smoking cessation, although it seems there are fewer harmful chemicals in vaping than in cigarette smoking.

However, there’s plenty of data that shows hookah smokers are inhaling nicotine and other chemicals found in cigarettes. That may put them at risk of developing the same cancers and other ailments, such as heart disease, as cigarette smokers.

There is also reason to believe that people who start vaping may go on to smoke cigarettes, which obviously is not good. The same applies to hookah smoking.

Even the non-tobacco types of hookah products create carbon monoxide and other toxic chemicals that, when ignited, could impact a person’s health risk. Bottom line: It’s best not to vape or smoke anything.

David O. Wilson, MD, MPH, is associate director of the Lung Cancer Center at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.