If you’re still puffing away on cigarettes despite all those Surgeon General’s warnings on every cigarette pack and in every ad, your shot at a long, healthy life may be going up in smoke. But quitting can make a life-changing difference—and prevent you from ending up as just another statistic.
This year alone, lung cancer will kill more than 71,000 American women. It has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. Look around; more than one in five women smoke. Ironically, our biggest cancer killer is preventable. In most cases, the deadly disease might have been avoided if the smoker had just stopped the habit.
Holding off the villain
Every day counts in your battle to reclaim healthy lungs. A public health study found that people who quit at age 35 lived an average 8 1/2 years longer than those who continued to smoke. Talk to your physician about stop-smoking techniques. For extra support in your effort to quit, check out the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking online smoking cessation clinic at www.ffsonline.org. You can visit the clinic whenever you need to, day or night.
Remember, the more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the greater your chances of getting lung cancer. If you stop, your risk drops each year, as healthy cells move in to replace abnormal ones in the lining of the bronchi, the main breathing tubes.
In its early stages, lung cancer is not usually marked by telltale symptoms, making it all the sneakier. Unfortunately, by the time smokers do notice warning signs—such as chronic cough, hoarseness, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing or chest pain—the cancer is often advanced. But since any of these symptoms can also be a red-flag warning of several other lung problems, it’s important to see a doctor for a thorough exam, as well as a chest X-ray or CT scan.
Seeing through the smoke screen
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that if you smoke less often you will inhale less nicotine. If you change your smoking schedule or switch to lower-tar cigarettes, you may inhale more deeply or take more drags to get the same amount of nicotine that you have long craved. Be true to yourself and your body, and make a clean break for life.
Even if you don’t smoke, you may be in danger if you spend time with others who do. Chemicals in smoke that someone else exhales (mainstream smoke) or that wafts from the end of a lit cigarette or cigar (sidestream smoke) can affect surrounding people, especially with repeated exposure. Studies show that sidestream smoke can be even more problematic, because many of the compounds in it are released at higher rates than those in mainstream smoke.
Secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer and heart disease and trigger or irritate asthma in children. You can avoid secondhand smoke by making your home and car smoke-free for everyone and by protecting your rights to a smoke-free workplace environment.
If you’re pregnant
Puffing during pregnancy (or even being exposed repeatedly to secondhand smoke) can harm your unborn child. In fact, smoking during pregnancy causes an estimated 10 percent of all infant deaths.
Before you reach for another pack, be warned: The nicotine and carbon monoxide that smokers inhale enter the placenta and prevent the fetus from getting all of the oxygen and nutrients it needs. And if you don’t stop lighting up during those formative nine months, your child is more likely to develop asthma later.
Your habit even filters down to the baby via breast milk, which delivers nicotine to a newborn. If an infant is exposed to secondhand smoke at home or in a day-care center, he or she is more likely to have colds, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.
But take heart: If you’re already pregnant and haven’t quit, it’s not too late. Experts say that quitting within the first trimester of pregnancy can lower the chances of miscarriage and premature birth. And pregnancy is a great time to stop for good, since you’re doing it for two. Think of it as a mother-child life insurance policy.
And, if you still haven’t managed to quit during a recent pregnancy, consider this: Don’t let lung cancer rob you prematurely of enjoying your child’s life later.
Beyond cigarettes: other culprits
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. This gas can seep up through the soil under a home, an office building or a school or enter through gaps or cracks in floors or walls. Radon causes up to 22,000 lung-cancer deaths annually. It can’t be seen or smelled, so your only defense is to measure radon levels in your home, a standard procedure that all home inspectors should do before you buy your home. If you smoke, radon exposure is a double whammy; it will greatly increase your risk of getting lung cancer.
On-the-job exposure to carcinogens also ups the ante. The top culprits are asbestos, uranium, arsenic and some petroleum products. As with radon, if you combine exposure to these substances with a smoking habit, your lung-cancer risk rises.