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Lung Cancer: Understanding the Risk Factors


Lung cancer is a relentless disease that impacts far too many in our communities, yet it often can be prevented. Understanding the risk factors along with taking part in recommended screenings are key to reducing its impact. Prevention and early diagnosis can save lives.

More than 800 people are diagnosed with lung cancer and about 500 people die from it each year in Hawai’i.1 It is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women. Native Hawaiians are also more likely to be affected.2

What is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is a result of the cells in the lungs changing. These cells then grow together at a rapid rate and form a tumor that destroys healthy lung tissue. There are two main types of lung cancers known as non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most diagnosed, while small cell lung cancer is rarer and tends to grow faster and more aggressively.

What are the Risk Factors?

A change in lung cells is typically caused by breathing in dangerous substances. Three primary risk factors include:

Smoking: The American Lung Association reports that about 90 percent of lung cancer cases in the nation are due to smoking.3 Heavy smoking over many years further increases the risk of cancer. Quitting smoking at any age is beneficial. It is one of the best steps you can take to leading an overall healthier lifestyle.

Secondhand Smoke: Nonsmokers, both adults and children, can be affected by breathing in the chemicals from nearby cigarettes. They can have the same long-term health issues from smoking, even though they did not pick up a cigarette. Encourage loved ones to quit smoking and avoid areas where you might breathe in secondhand smoke.

Toxic Chemicals: Substances such as radon, asbestos, arsenic and pollution can also increase your risk. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.4 It is a naturally occurring gas within the soil that can enter buildings through small gaps and cracks. Check radon levels in your home with a test kit or with the help of a professional. Additionally, be sure to use protective gear if hazardous chemicals like asbestos and arsenic are present in your workplace.

Genetics can also impact your risk for lung cancer. If you have a family history, mention it to your doctor at your next appointment.

Who Should be Screened for Lung Cancer?

Studies have demonstrated that low-dose CT lung screenings can result in a lower risk of death. The American Lung Association reports that if lung cancer is caught before it spreads, the likelihood of surviving five years or more improves to 60 percent.5 The Queen’s Medical Center recommends screenings if you are:

  • 55 to 74 years old
  • Have a tobacco smoking history of more than or equal to 30 pack-years (one pack-year equals smoking one pack per day for one year)
  • Currently smoking
  • A former smoker who quit within the last 15 years

Early detection is essential to reducing the impact of lung cancer. Speak to your doctor if you fit these qualifications and learn more about lung cancer screenings at the Queen’s Health System.


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