Age-Related Lung Cancer Risk

The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: May 8, 2013


At what age can you get lung cancer?


Barbara Campling, MD, Medical Oncologist, responds:

The median age of diagnosis of lung cancer is in the mid 60's. This means that half of the people who get lung cancer are above this age and half are below it. This does not mean that only older people get lung cancer. The youngest patient that I have seen with smoking-related lung cancer was in her early 30's, and we are seeing increasing numbers of cases in people in their 40's. I have also seen lung cancer in patients in their 20's who were never-smokers. In the majority of cases, lung cancer is caused by years or decades of smoking. The risk of developing lung cancer increases with the duration of smoking and the amount smoked. However, there is no threshold of cigarette exposure above which one is at increased risk for getting lung cancer but below which there is very little risk. Even a small amount of cigarette exposure can cause permanent genetic damage to the lungs that could lead to lung cancer. The risk of getting lung cancer in someone who has ever smoked, even a small amount, will always be at least slightly higher than for someone who has never smoked. Even non-smokers who are exposed to cigarette smoke at home or at work (secondhand smoke) are at increased risk for lung cancer, although certainly nowhere near as great a risk as for those who smoke heavily.

What happens to the risk of getting lung cancer in people who have quit smoking? This question has been carefully addressed in a study by Halpern, et al (1). Surprisingly, the risk of developing lung cancer does not go down to zero after smoking cessation. It is interesting that about half of lung cancer patients who are diagnosed at the present time are former smokers. Some of them quit smoking decades before diagnosis. There is no "safe" level of cigarette exposure.

1. Halpern, M.T., Gillespie, B.W., Warner, K.E. Patterns of absolute risk of lung cancer mortality in former smokers. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 1993;85:457-464.


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