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Smoking and Cancer: What are the Risks?


For many years, health professionals have been warning us about the health consequences of smoking. It has been long-established that smoking causes irreversible damage to the body — even death. Yet that doesn’t seem enough to convince most smokers to quit. Perhaps the years of absorbing nicotine in their bloodstream have caused them to develop an addiction.

Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 smoking-related deaths yearly. Smoking also causes about 80% of lung cancers, 20% of all types of cancers, and 30% of all cancer deaths. 

According to the CDC, nearly 13 out of every 100 adults smoke cigarettes, which means an estimated 30.8 million American adults are active smokers. 

Consequently, the U.S. tobacco industry has an estimated value of USD 76 billion in 2021 and will continue to expand at a compound annual growth (CAGR) rate of 3.4% from 2022 to 2030. This data shows that despite the constant reminders of how harmful tobacco consumption is, people continue to smoke and seem unbothered about the potential health risks.

Nevertheless, sharing more information and continuing to remind people about the dangers of smoking might eventually yield a positive result. This article will discuss the types of cancer associated with tobacco use and how quitting can help decrease the risks.  

How Smoking Leads to Cancer?

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals — many of which are toxic, including 70 known carcinogens. Every time you take a puff of a cigarette, these chemicals enter your lungs and spread to other parts of the body. Smoking is not limited to cigarettes and may include cigars, pipes, and electronic vapes. 

You can also get cancer from smokeless (chewing) tobacco products and from breathing other people’s smoke (secondhand smoke). Exposure to secondhand smoke increases your risk of developing lung cancer by 20-30%. So, it doesn’t matter if you smoke, chew, or just breathe it from others — there is no safe way to use tobacco or risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. 

Smoking can lead to cancer when carcinogens damage your DNA and cause your cells to grow and divide abnormally. Since these harmful chemicals enter the lungs, it’s the most common organ at risk for cancer. But this cancerous growth may invade healthy tissue and spread throughout the body, including the parts that protect against cancer. 

What makes it worse is that other chemicals from smoking can weaken your body’s immune response, making it harder for cells to repair DNA damage and fight off cancer. Your cancer risk may depend on the amount you smoke and the length of time you’ve been smoking. The more cigarette you smoke a day, the more likely you are to develop cancer. 

What are the Cancers Linked to Smoking?

Tobacco use is incredibly lethal and harmful to nearly every part of your body, some of which you would not expect. There are more than 100 types of cancer, and smoking is strongly linked to 16 of them, including:

1. Lung cancer 

Inhaling tobacco smoke, which is full of carcinogens and toxins, damages the cells and tissue in the lungs. While your body can repair this damage at first, repeated exposure and damage to cells cause them to act abnormally and eventually lead to cancer. Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for almost 90% of the risk in men and 80% in women.

2. Head and neck cancer 

This type of cancer starts anywhere in the mouth, nose, throat, and neck. Alcohol and tobacco use are the two most significant risk factors for head and neck cancer. Research suggests that 85% of head and neck diagnoses are associated with tobacco use. 

3. Esophageal cancer 

Cancer of the esophagus begins when abnormal cells develop in the innermost layer or the esophageal mucosa. Smoking a pack of cigarettes or more daily gives you at least twice the chance of developing esophageal cancer than nonsmokers. 

4. Kidney, bladder, and ureteral cancer 

Your lungs absorb many of the carcinogens of tobacco smoke in the bloodstream, affecting your bladder, kidneys, and ureter. Smoking can double the risk of kidney cancers, causing about 30% of them in men and 25% in women. Smoking also causes at least 50% of bladder cancer in men and 20-30% in women.  

5. Pancreatic cancer 

Accumulating evidence indicates that nicotine exposure may lead to an increased expression of proteins that contributes to pancreatitis and other pancreatic diseases, including cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, cigarette smoking contributes to about 25% of pancreatic cancers.

6. Stomach cancer 

While the actual cause of stomach cancer is not yet known, experts believe that smoking can double your risk of developing cancer, particularly cancers of the upper part of the stomach near the esophagus.

7. Liver cancer 

Tobacco contains several carcinogens, including 4-Aminobiphenyl, a substance that can increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). One European study claims that 47.6% of HCC can be linked to smoking.

8. Cervical and ovarian cancer 

Evidence suggests that tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke, increasing the prevalence of invasive cervical cancer two to three times more than nonsmokers. While human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer, smoking makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections.

9. Colorectal cancer 

Smoking invites free radicals to damage DNA and healthy cells of your large intestine, which can become cancerous and eventually cause colon cancer. Many studies indicate that active smokers have a 20% to 60% risk of colorectal cancer.

10. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) 

Like stomach cancer, most cases of AML are unknown. However, smoking is a significant risk factor due to benzene, a toxic chemical in cigarette smoke.

How do Cancer Rates Go Down After Quitting Smoking?

The more cigarettes you smoke each day and the longer you do it, the greater your chances of developing cancer. But the opposite is also true. When you smoke less and quit sooner, it significantly reduces your risks of getting cancer.

Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke is an excellent start to preventing the 16 types of smoking-related cancers mentioned in the previous section of this article. Here’s how much cancer rates can go down after quitting:

  • Within 5-10 years of quitting, your risk of getting mouth, throat, or (voice box) laryngeal cancer reduces by 50%.
  • Your chances of getting bladder, esophageal, and kidney cancer may decrease significantly within ten (10) years after you quit smoking, y.
  • Within 10-15 years of quitting, your risk of developing lung cancer decreases by 50%. 
  • Your chance of getting cervical cancer drops by about 50% within twenty (20) years of smoking cessation. Also, your risks of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, or pancreas would be close to that of someone who doesn’t smoke.

Cancer Screening

Cervical and Colorectal Cancers Screening

Cancer screening tests, especially for cervical and colorectal cancers, can help find these diseases early when treatment is likely to work best. Screening is an effective method of preventing the progression of cancer and improving its prognosis. Examples include:

  • HPV test and Pap test
  • Colonoscopy
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Fecal occult blood test
  • Virtual colonoscopy
  • DNA stool test

Lung Cancer Screening

If you’ve been smoking for many years, you may want to consider taking a low-dose computed tomography (also called low-dose CT scan, or LDCT) of the chest. It’s the best and only recommended screening test for lung cancer. This test uses an X-ray machine with low doses of radiation to scan the body and make detailed pictures of the lungs. 

The U.S Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer with LDCT for people who:

  • Are between 50 to 80 years old
  • Have a 20 pack-year smoking history
  • Currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years

A pack-year means smoking an average of 20 cigarettes (1 pack) per day for one year. Having a 20 pack-year history is the equivalent of smoking one pack a day for 20 years or at least 40 cigarettes a day for ten years. 

The USPSTF recommends stopping the annual screening once a person has not smoked for 15 years or has a health problem that limits life expectancy or the ability to have lung surgery. Remember that lung cancer screening is not a substitute for smoking cessation and will only help you detect cancer early. Quitting smoking and having a smoke-free environment remains to be the best way to prevent not just lung cancer but other smoking-related cancers as well.

Conclusion

Ultimately, smoking is bad for your health. No matter how much or how little, there’s no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke — especially secondhand smoke. Smoking may temporarily cause pleasant feelings, but the long-term effects are far more dangerous and deadly. It predisposes you to several diseases, including 16 different types of cancers. The more cigarettes you smoke, the more you allow toxins to destroy your body or even kill you. 

However, it’s never too late to quit smoking. Quitting smoking can considerably reduce the risks of chronic illnesses and even adds as much as ten years to your life expectancy. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been smoking. Quitting now will surely improve your health and your quality of life. 

It may be easier said than done, but if you want to live a longer, healthier life, you must convince yourself to stop smoking. There are a lot of strategies you can try to quit smoking, such as nicotine replacement therapy. Or you can try chewing sugarless gum or hard candy (instead of smoking), engaging in physical activity, practicing relaxation techniques, or simply reminding yourself of its benefits. 

When you find yourself having these intense tobacco cravings or smoking urges, keep in mind that you can always stand up against these cravings. And each time you resist an urge to smoke, you’re one step closer to quitting smoking for good.



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