Meghana Raghavendra, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist with Franciscan Physician Network Oncology & Hematology Specialists in Columbus, Indiana, answers your questions and shares expert insight on the impact of secondhand smoke.
Q: I was exposed to secondhand smoke as a child and now, as an adult, am married to a smoker. What are my risks of developing lung cancer?
A: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide in both men and women. You are wise to be thinking about the ramifications of secondhand smoke on your own health.
More than 5,500 new lung cancer cases have already been diagnosed this year in Indiana. Smoking is the primary risk factor for developing lung cancer, accounting for 90 percent of all lung cancers. Secondhand smoke, however, is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.
Secondhand smoke is a combination of the smoke given off by the burning tobacco product and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. It contains many of the same toxic chemicals that cause cancer in smokers.
Living with a smoker can increase a non-smoker's chances of developing cancer by 20 to 30 percent.
There are other diseases associated with secondhand smoke including heart disease, bronchitis and asthma. In children, the effects of secondhand smoke can result in kids who are sick more often, are more likely to cough and wheeze, come down with more ear infections and experience more lung infections, like pneumonia and bronchitis.
Unfortunately, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. The best way to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking in indoor spaces. Tobacco smoke can move through air ducts, wall and floor cracks and crawl spaces, so simply separating the smoker from the non-smoker indoors doesn't solve the problem.
If you haven’t already, talk to your primary care doctor about your exposure to secondhand smoke and the accompanying risk for lung cancer. In the early stages, lung cancer typically has no symptoms.
As lung cancer progresses, some signs and symptoms include:
- A new cough that doesn't go away
- Changes in a chronic cough
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Bone pain
The best way to reduce the risk of lung cancer is to not smoke and to avoid secondhand smoke. The good news is that progress in smoking cessation is now being seen in declining lung cancer rates and mortality in men in the United States.
There are a number of effective smoking cessation programs, including the Aspire Tobacco Free program at Franciscan Health. Franciscan Health also offers current and former smokers a $49 lung scan to help in early detection of lung cancer.
Smoking cessation dramatically decreases the risk of lung cancer. The reduction in risk becomes evident within five years and a progressive decline in risk is seen as the duration of nonsmoking grows.
Studies show that former smokers who had been abstinent for more than 15 years had an 80 to 90 percent reduction in the risk of lung cancer compared with a current smoker, and adults who quit smoking gained six to ten years of life expectancy.