Lung Cancer

People's ideas about the causes of lung cancer

Research has shown that the major cause of lung cancer is smoking and the use of tobacco. Smokers and ex-smokers are at greatest risk of developing the disease. For those that give up smoking for 15 years  or more the chance of developing the lung cancer is similar to that of a non-smoker. Some of the people interviewed here were sure that their lung cancer had been caused by smoking.

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There are other risk factors for the causes of lung cancer such as age, genetic risk, past cancer treatment and previous lung disease like TB (tuberculosis). It is also known that mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer) is caused by contact with asbestos. It can develop many years after exposure to asbestos.

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People may develop lung cancer without ever having smoked themselves. The impact of environmental tobacco smoke on health has been disputed, but one man was told that his cancer had developed because of passive smoking. He felt annoyed and stigmatised when a doctor assumed he had been a smoker, (also see 'Feelings of stigma, shame and guilt about having lung cancer').

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Radon gas is the second biggest cause of lung cancer after smoking (although this number is still very small compared with smoking). Radon is a naturally occurring gas that is released from areas where there is a lot of granite such as the West Country and the Peak District. Exposure to high concentrations of radon can increase the risk of developing lung cancer. If you are worried about the level of gas in your home you can get a radon detector from the radiation protection division of the Health Protection Agency. They can also advise you on what you can do to reduce the risk.
Exposure to substances such as asbestos, uranium, chromium, nickel, diesel exhaust fumes, silica and synthetic fibres has been linked to the disease. These are rare causes of lung cancer because you would normally only come across these chemicals in large amounts if you worked with them, and not many people do. Pollution, both inside and outside the home, can probably increase the risk of lung cancer. Some people said that although health professionals had told them that their cancer was due to smoking, they believed that other factors, such as diesel fumes could have 'triggered' the disease. Many had given up smoking before their mid 40's and some did not believe that smoking could have caused their cancer.

Some of those interviewed here were heavy smokers, but adamant that environmental factors and chemicals, such as spray paint, carbon dust, or asbestos, had contributed to their condition. A few people were angry that on occasion doctors appeared to be judgmental and unsympathetic, blaming them for their disease. However, one person's doctor had said that smoking and tobacco were not necessarily to blame.

Diet may play a part in the incidence of lung cancer. Some evidence suggests that high consumption of saturated fats, and a low intake of fruit and vegetables increases the risk of the disease. One man thought that his diet may have played a part in causing his lung cancer.

Other suggestions by the people we interviewed about the causes of lung cancer included stress, bereavement, physical trauma and faulty genes. One woman was convinced that her cancer had been caused by a clot on the lung.

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A few people had no idea why they had developed lung cancer. They suggested that cancer was 'one of those things', 'a cell gone awry', or 'just something that happens'. One person suggested that her lung cancer might have been caused by an attack of Asian flu. Some pointed out that people can smoke all their lives yet not develop lung cancer.

For more information sources see our Resources.

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2016.


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