Former Smokers and Cancer Risk

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 21, 2024

Smoking any amount can cause damage that can lead to health problems. When you quit smoking, this is a great achievement. By quitting, you are lowering your risk of smoking-related illnesses. Quitting smoking has health benefits that start right away and can continue over many years. This is true even for people who already have a smoking-related disease.

The good news is that the risk of having lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses decreases after you stop smoking and continues to decrease as more tobacco-free time passes. The risk of lung cancer decreases over time, though it can never return to that of a never-smoker. The risk also continues to decrease for the other types of cancer and illnesses that smoking can cause.

What is my risk of getting lung cancer?

The risk of getting lung cancer is a lot higher for people who smoke than people who do not smoke. About 85 out of 100 lung cancer deaths are linked to smoking cigarettes. The risk is also high for all types of tobacco products.

Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center made an online tool that can be used to look at lung cancer risk for current or former smokers. It is used for people between 50 and 80 years old who have smoked for at least 20 years, or if they have quit within the past 15 years. This tool only looks at lung cancer risk and not the risk of the other types of cancer or other health conditions that smoking and tobacco cause.

You can talk with your healthcare team about your risk. The risk is based on the amount smoked, over what time span, and can include other parts of your health history that can increase your risk (asbestos exposure, COPD).

Risk of Other Types of Cancer

Quitting tobacco cannot get rid of the damage that is done by smoking. But, the risk of other cancers decreases as time passes without tobacco.

You should always be honest with healthcare providers about your smoking history and be aware of the risks associated with this history.

Inform your healthcare provider if you have 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.

As a former smoker, there is a risk of cancer. Talk to your provider about your risk and what screening tests are right for you.

American Cancer Society (2020). Benefits of Quitting Smoking Over Time.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023). Smoking and Cancer.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023). What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

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