Smoking Doesn't JUST Cause Lung Cancer

OncoLink Team
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 23, 2012

While most smokers are aware of some of the health problems smoking causes, such as lung cancer and heart disease, they may not be aware of the 12 other types of cancer smoking can cause, or other health problems associated with smoking. These may include stroke, lung diseases (emphysema and COPD), peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, infertility (in men and women) and impotence in men, just to name a few. In addition, smoking affects the health of those around you through second hand smoke exposure- children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of second hand smoke. Learning about the negative effects of smoking may be the motivation some people need to quit. For some, the diagnosis of cancer in a close friend or family member can be the impetus to quit. Whatever the motivation, quitting can be very difficult. Use the links below to learn more about the importance of quitting, planning a quit date and finding the support needed to be successful. Keep in mind, most people attempt to quit many times before being successful. If you fall off the horse, dust yourself off and get right back on!

Why quit? Tobacco smoking is the greatest single cause of early death, killing about half the people who continue to smoke for most of their lives. Half of those deaths will occur before age 69. Tobacco use is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths or almost ½ million people a year in the U.S. The U.S. Surgeon General first reported on the detrimental health effects of cigarette smoking in 1964, yet 23% of all men and 18% of all women, in the United States, still smoke cigarettes today.

Smoking causes 85% of lung cancer cases in the U.S., but is also a primary cause of cancers of the oral (mouth) and nasal (nose) cavity, sinuses, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus (tube from the throat to the stomach), stomach, pancreas, liver, bladder, kidney, cervix and one type of leukemia (acute myeloid leukemia). A person's risk of developing cancer increases with the time that they smoke (number of years) and the amount that they smoke (number of cigarettes per day). However, there is no safe amount to smoke and even one cigarette can cause damage to the DNA of your cells. Quitting is beneficial at ANY time- no matter how long you have smoked. Quitting allows your body to begin to reverse some of the damage smoking has done, and reduces risk of cancer and other health problems compared to people who continue smoking.

Estimating your risk of lung cancer in numbers

Many current and former smokers want to know their risk of developing lung cancer in numbers. For example, some people want information such as "I have a 10% chance of developing the disease." Assigning a number to risk is very complicated and is often hard to interpret- while one person may think 10% is a high chance, another thinks that is a relatively low number.And for the person who is in that 10% and develops the cancer, the number is meaningless. Remember that statistics like these are numbers based on large groups of people. It can be difficult to translate what that means for any one individual. In other words, don't let the number convince you that it is okay to continue smoking.

If you are still interested in knowing some numbers, researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have developed an online tool that estimates risk of lung cancer in numbers for people between 50 and 75 years old who have smoked at least 25 years, though they can be current or former smokers. Remember this tool only considers lung cancer risk and not risk of the 12 other types of cancer or other health conditions that smoking causes.

If you don't fall into that tool's population, you can talk with your doctor about your risk. Calculating a risk is very complicated and some researchers have spent entire careers trying to quantify an individual smoker's risk. Risk calculation takes into account the amount smoked, over what time period and can include other parts of your health history that can increase your risk (asbestos exposure, COPD).

How does tobacco cause cancer?

Tobacco and tobacco smoke cause cancer because they contain many chemicals that are known carcinogens (cancer causing agents). Cigarettes, cigars, chewing and pipe tobacco are made from dried tobacco leaves, as well as ingredients added for flavor and other reasons, such as making smoking more pleasant. More than 7,000 different chemicals have been found in tobacco and tobacco smoke -- among them are more than 60 known carcinogens. Some of the substances that are released by cigarettes and make up tobacco smoke include: ammonia, arsenic, benzene (like that found in pesticides and gasoline) cyanide, formaldehyde (a known carcinogen chemical used to preserve dead bodies), tar, and carbon monoxide. Similar substances are found in smokeless tobacco, including Polonium 210 (nuclear waste), cadmium (used in car batteries), lead (which causes nerve poison), nitrosamines, arsenic, and cyanide.

The chemicals in tobacco and tobacco smoke cause damage in the most basic level of our bodies, the cells and genes. Normally, the body has systems, controlled by genes, which regulate cell growth, repair and death. The genetic damage caused by smoking causes this regulation to malfunction, leading to uncontrolled growth. This uncontrolled growth can, in turn, lead to the formation of tumors that grow and spread throughout the body because they are not detected or repaired by the body's normal monitoring systems.

Are You Ready to Quit Smoking?

Quitting is beneficial, no matter how long a person has smoked tobacco. Quitting smoking has major health benefits that start right away. This is true even for people who already have a smoking-related disease or cancer. The argument that it is too late to quit smoking because the damage is already done is not true. It is never too late to quit smoking!

The Benefits of Quitting Cigarettes

Your risk of having lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses and cancers depends on how much you have been exposed to cigarette smoke over your lifetime. However, the good news is that the risk of these diseases is reduced when you stop smoking. The risk of lung cancer is less in people who quit smoking than in people who keep smoking. The risk of cancer becomes less as the number of years you have been smoke-free increases. People who stop smoking while they are young get the greatest health benefits from quitting. Those who quit in their 30s may avoid most of the risk due to tobacco use. But even smokers who quit after age 50 largely reduce their risk of dying early.

Within minutes of smoking the last cigarette, the body begins to restore itself. Just look at these facts from the U.S. Surgeon General's reports and the American Cancer Society:

20 minutes after quitting

Your heart rate and blood pressure drop. (Effect of smoking on arterial stiffness and pulse pressure amplification, Mahmud A, Feely J. 2003. Hypertension:41:183)

12 hours after quitting

The carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal. (US Surgeon General's Report, 1988)

2 weeks to 3 months after quitting

Your circulation improves, meaning your blood is pumped better and your lungs work better. (US Surgeon General's Report, 1990)

1 to 9 months after quitting

Coughing and shortness of breath decrease; Lung function improves increasing the ability to handle mucus, clean the lungs, and reduce the risk of infection. (US Surgeon General's Report, 1990)

1 year after quitting

The excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker's. (US Surgeon General's Report, 2010)

5 years after quitting

Your risk of stroke is reduced to that of a non-smoker 2-5 years after quitting. The risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder is cut in half after 5 years. (US Surgeon General's Report, 2010)

10 years after quitting

The lung cancer death rate is about half that of a person who is still smoking. (US Surgeon General's Report, 2010)

15 years after quitting

The risk of coronary heart disease is that of a non-smoker's. (US Surgeon General's Report, 1990)

These health benefits are certainly appealing. In addition, keep in mind the day to day benefits of better smelling breath, hair and clothes; further, your senses of smell and taste may improve, and you may begin to notice less shortness of breath when doing simple activities. You will be setting a great example for other smokers who want to quit and your family and friends will be proud of your achievement, not to mention the benefits for them. In addition, you will be saving lots of money; set aside what you would usually spend and do something nice for yourself with the money!

Symptoms of withdrawal from tobacco

Stopping or cutting back on smoking cigarettes, or any other type of tobacco, causes symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, which can affect a person both physically and mentally. Physically, the body is reacting to the absence of nicotine. Mentally and emotionally, one is faced with giving up an addiction, which calls for big changes in behavior and routine. Both the physical and mental factors must be dealt with to quit and stay quit.

Those who have used tobacco regularly for a few weeks or longer, and suddenly stop or greatly reduce the amount used, ,may have withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms usually start within a few hours of the last cigarette, dip or chew and get worse about 2 to 3 days later when most of the nicotine and its by-products are out of the body. Quitters may experience: dizziness (which may last 1 or 2 days after quitting), depression, feelings of frustration, impatience, anger, anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping (including trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and having bad dreams or nightmares), trouble concentrating, restlessness, headaches, tiredness and increased appetite.

Withdrawal symptoms can last for a few days to up to several weeks. These uncomfortable feelings can lead you to start using tobacco again, but remember: They will get better every day that you stay tobacco-free! Nicotine replacement products and other medications can help you get through the tough times. There are also wonderful resources available online and in the community - learn more in the resources for quitting below.

Resources for Quitting

Quitting tobacco is not easy, but you can do it! Whether you're a smoker or someone who uses smokeless tobacco, to have the best chance of quitting and staying quit, you need to know what you're up against, what your options are, and where to go for help. Below are some resources that will help you.

Smoking cessation. Where do I start?
Start here for help in creating a quit plan, tips to coping with common obstacles and resources for support and smoking cessation programs.

Smoking Cessation Aids:
This article reviews the available treatments, both pharmacologic (drug) and non-pharmacologic, to aid in successful smoking cessation.

Life After Tobacco

Unfortunately, quitting tobacco cannot completely erase the damage done from previous smoking. You should always be honest with healthcare providers about your smoking history and be aware of the risks associated with this history.

As recommended by the American Cancer Society, you should tell your healthcare provider about any of the following symptoms:

  • Any change in a cough (for example, you cough up more phlegm or mucus than usual)
  • A new cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling tired all the time (fatigue)
  • Frequent lung or respiratory infections (like pneumonia or bronchitis)
  • Development of sores or white patches in your mouth.