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Insights into lung cancer in B.C.: How British Columbians can reduce their risk

The second in the series of insights into lung cancer in B.C., this article highlights ways in which people can reduce their risk of one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Canada.
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​Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer related deaths in B.C. It is also one of the most preventable cancers. While some risk factors cannot be controlled, nearly 80% of lung cancer diagnoses in B.C. can be attributed to risk factors that are within a person’s ability to control or change. For example, 71% of all preventable cases of lung cancer in B.C. can be linked to tobacco use. 

Smoking

“We know that tobacco smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke are by far the strongest risk factors for lung cancer,” says Dr. Parveen Bhatti, senior scientist for prevention at BC Cancer. “Exposure to radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas often found inside homes, can also significantly contribute to lung cancer risk. Certain occupations such as those involving prolonged exposure to asbestos or diesel exhaust can also come with an increased risk.” 
Although smoking rates have been declining in B.C., for people who smoke tobacco quitting smoking is the most effective way to reduce the risk of lung cancer. Quitting smoking can reduce a person’s risk by up to 60% within 10 years. The BC Smoking Cessation Program helps eligible B.C. residents stop smoking and the QuitNow program, available to all Canadians, provides one-on-one support and valuable resources free of charge. 

Those who use e-cigarettes may not be in the clear, says Dr. Bhatti. 

“Although we have seen a steady decline in tobacco smoking, we need more research on the impact of e-cigarettes on cancer risk,” says Dr. Bhatti.

“Since e-cigarettes utilize a vapor rather than smoke through combustion, they are thought to carry a reduced risk of lung cancer, but we need more research on this. There could still be carcinogens in the vapor and there are still many questions about vaping-associated lung illness that remain unanswered.”

Radon

Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless and naturally occurring radioactive gas which can reach high concentration levels indoors. About 5% of all preventable lung cancer cases can be traced back to radon.  Although exposure to radon varies by region in B.C., the highest concentrations can be found in the Interior and Northern parts of the province. 

To assess risk of radon exposure, home testing kits for radon are available. In B.C., radon testing kits can be borrowed through an innovative Radon Detection Library Lending Program, available at some B.C. libraries.
For more information about radon, visit BC Cancer’s radon prevention page

Environmental Factors

While air pollution is an established risk factor for lung cancer, Dr. Bhatti says long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution typically does not occur in B.C. and so this is less of a concern for British Columbians.

It is important to note lung cancer can be the result of family genetics (a family history of lung cancer), a personal history of lung disease, or a weakened immune system. These are considered non-modifiable risk factors. Those with these risk factors who wish to maintain their lung health can take some added steps. 

“Ensuring that we get enough exercise is also essential for maintaining good lung health,” says Dr. Bhatti.
He stresses that remaining motivated to exercise and finding safe spaces for exercise in the age of COVID can be challenging but continues to be an important part of reducing your risk.
 
For more information about how to reduce your risk of lung and other types of cancers, visit the BC Cancer Prevention website
BC Cancer
 
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