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April 20th, 2011
08:45 AM ET

How quickly does lung cancer develop for smokers?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Wednesdays, it's Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

I started smoking socially in high school and still do. How long would it take for someone like me develop lung cancer?

Asked by Tom of Cleveland

Expert Answer

Dear Tom,

There have been several questions about smoking recently. I thought your question really important. In answer to it, there is no such thing as a safe amount of cigarette smoking. I urge you to quit. Studies show that it is far easier for a light smoker to quit than someone who smokes a pack and a half or more per day.

Also keep in mind there is no such thing as a safer cigarette. The risk of lung cancer does increase with both the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years a person has smoked. A 35-year-old male who smokes fewer than 25 cigarettes per day is estimated to have a 9% lifetime chance of dying of lung cancer, whereas 25 cigarettes per day or more gives him an 18% lifetime chance of dying of lung cancer. There are some estimates that lifetime risk of lung cancer in a very heavy smoker is about 30% overall, whereas it is 1% or less in nonsmokers. This translates into about a third of very heavy smokers developing lung cancer. Also, 15 to 20 of every 100 patients who have lung cancer are lifelong nonsmokers. Some get it because of secondhand smoke and some get it for unknown reasons.

People who start smoking at younger ages are at higher risk later in life. Lung cancer rates begin increasing in the mid to late 40s and peak in the late 70s. Many people think low tar or filtered cigarettes are safer. The truth is most people will compensate for these cigarettes by inhaling deeper and/or smoking more cigarettes in order to satisfy their need for nicotine.

While you ask about lung cancer, it is important to remember that occasional cigarette use can increase risk of cardiovascular disease dramatically. This is very pertinent, because cigarette smoking kills more people from cardiovascular diseases (heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease) than all cancers combined. It is a common observation that a town that makes smoking in public illegal lowers it heart attack rate within six months. This is primarily because the decrease in secondhand smoke exposure decreases the number of heart attacks in nonsmokers. Just think about the dose of smoke to even a casual smoker over six months compared to a nonsmoker exposed to occasional secondhand smoke.

Cigarette smoking is linked to a number of diseases. Lung cancer is most famously associated, but tobacco smoking causes cancers of the head and neck (mouth, throat, sinuses), esophagus, stomach, kidney, pancreas, bladder, uterine cervix and even certain types of leukemia. Fourteen different cancers in all are caused by smoking. Smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as bronchitis and emphysema. It worsens asthma. Smoking is linked to high blood pressure, ulcers, osteoporosis, diabetes and reproductive disorders such as infertility, miscarriage and premature menopause.

There are significant benefits to smoking cessation. Most tobacco-related disease can be prevented if one stops smoking by age 40. Even for older people and for those with tobacco-related disease, there is significant benefit to smoking cessation. Short-term, cessation causes cravings, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating and restlessness. Some may have a worsening of the smoker's cough. Long term, many complain of weight gain and increased depression.

Someone who is thinking of quitting should seek counseling from a physician or other experienced health care professional. Nicotine gum, nicotine patches and some other medications can be very helpful with smoking cessation. Counseling through telephone quit lines and internet support groups can also be helpful.


soundoff (254 Responses)
  1. Smoking Old Man

    You are the idiot pal. I walk 3 miles every day and don't even break a sweat let alone cough and wheeze. I don't know how old you are but you cannot be very old because you have learned nothing. I am healthy as hell. My doctor, who I see for a checkup once a year tells me I am healthy as a 40 year old so stuff it you moron.

    January 19, 2016 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jana

      I wish everyone would stop acting like their experience trumps everyone else's and anyone who says otherwise is ignorant and wrong. We all have different reactions to drugs and toxins. Some people will smoke and experience few consequences while others that smoke will have many consequences. But stop saying that just because YOU didn't have that experience, it isn't true. You're seriously what is wrong with this world. Many people live with a reality that others don't, but to invalidate their experience and tell them they are crazy is wrong.

      April 7, 2016 at 16:04 | Report abuse |
  2. Name*Frances

    I have to disagree. I started smoking at the age of 13 i am now 51 i smoke 1 pack a day. The only time i did not smoke was when i carried my son. I tried to quit smoking and develop C.O.P.D. so i started back and i have no problem breathing. How do you explain this

    February 8, 2016 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. srikanth450

    I smoke daily 2 to 4 light cigratee does it give any harm like lung cancer but people say smoking 3 light cigratee dosent make any problem please give answer

    February 14, 2016 at 08:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • michaeljmcfadden

      It depends on what you mean by "a problem." If you are young and you smoke five cigarettes or so every day for the rest of your life the statistics say that you are likely increasing your chances of dying from lung cancer by several hundred percent. However, the statistic you never see out there is what your chances of such a death actually ARE! Since lung cancer is a fairly rare disease (Lifetime risk for a nonsmoker is about 1/2 of 1%.) increasing that risk by 300% only raises it to a lifetime risk of about 2% - i.e. one chance in fifty over a lifetime that might extend up into ones 80s or beyond.

      That doesn't seem very big, but on the other hand, just as a very few people will be the ones who smoke and live to over 100 years old, there will also be some very few people who smoke and get a lung cancer in their 40s and die who might not have gotten it if they hadn't smoked.

      – MJM, not a doctor, and I don't even play one on TV..

      May 17, 2016 at 08:44 | Report abuse |
  4. alison

    send me pictures of smokers lungs

    February 19, 2016 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Smoking Old Man

    Here is a link explaining exactly why there are all the claims that smoking is so bad for you. Judge for yourself after reading the true facts. Here is a link to the truth: http://www.greyastongreen.com/

    February 26, 2016 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
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    April 7, 2016 at 05:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. anónimos

    How long does it take for a 13 year old to die from smokeing ciggereatse

    May 10, 2016 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • michaeljmcfadden

      According to the Antismokers' own figures, the SAMMEC calculations on "premature deaths" the AVERAGE age for a smoker (who, according to the Antismokers, almost always started smoking as a teen) to die from smoking is in their early 70s. That's assuming that the teen continues to smoke pretty much throughout the rest of their life. I don't know any precise statistics on it, but I believe that currently about half the people who are in their forties/fifties who began smoking as teens have quit smoking (and thus greatly reduced their chances of "dying from smoking.") According to the UK's recent "Million Women Study" a woman who stops smoking by age 30 (again, after, on average, starting as a mid-teen) avoids 97% of the risks of smoking.

      If you're asking in terms of yourself, smoking regularly is a significant health risk and you're better off not doing it. But in terms of fears of imminent deaths of you or a brother or sister who is smoking you shouldn't let yourself be over-frightened by the propaganda out there.

      – MJM, not a doctor by the way.... but I *have* read and written very widely in this subject area.

      May 17, 2016 at 08:35 | Report abuse |
  8. Doctor Friderich Miller MD Surgeon

    Having operated on many with smoking related complications you can be certain your disease risks go way up if you smoke. After we operate many times the only thing we can tell the family is his life span has been shortened to terminal status as little we could do to save the patient.

    Smoking kills sometimes fast, sometimes slow but it almost always wins out.

    May 10, 2016 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. ne

    I am a 26 year old female and have been smoking since I was 8 years old..I am 118 lbs approximately..is this the reason I cannot gain weight...plus ive tried the gum to quit and it didnt help...please and thankyou

    May 27, 2016 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Just Me

    My grandmother started smoking when she was 12. She finally quite smoking when she turned 89. At 90 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and that was the year she bought a red car. Her neighbor also bought a red car that same year and he died of skin cancer at 49 years old, the same year as my grandmother died. Obviously having purchased a red car is what led to cancer. Right? I mean if you are going to look only at anecdotal evidence, then it has to be the red car.

    June 9, 2016 at 12:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 18, 2016 at 03:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Shane

    Im 21 year old male and i started smoking 3 years ago and still continuing. Now a days, im having small chest pain. Is it a serious issue for a 3year smoker. For 3 days im having a pain in my left shoulder, dont know whether it is muscle pain or bone pain. And i dont remember of it is cause by some mispositions in sleep. Anyway my chest pain is bothering me mentally. Do I have a chance of catching lung cancer with just 3 years of experience in smoking?

    August 7, 2016 at 05:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ed Palinurus

    Way to not answer the question. You lose all credibility when you get on the soapbox and ignore legitimate questions.

    August 24, 2016 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Patric

    Dear doc . ive been urging to smoke ciggerettes but trying cigars and they satisfy me more. How long will it take for me to die if i inhale them?
    Ive been inhaling instead of gushing .
    How long will it take doc?

    September 7, 2016 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Markus

    My wife has smoked a pack and a half a day for 38 years – she's fine except that she cough's her lungs up every morning and is breathless at the slightest physical exertion – don't tell to give up – she get's really cross!

    September 24, 2016 at 07:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Mosam

    my age is 13 i have smoked once ,not all but only one time i sucked it can harm me?and i promise that from today onward i will never smoke.sir please give suggestion and mail me suggestion.

    October 2, 2016 at 05:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Lalani

    I smoked from 13-24 years old. I quit when I got pregnant with my first child. I didn't smoke for 30 years. I started back 3 years ago. What are my chances of getting lung cancer? I'm 54 years old now.

    October 18, 2016 at 10:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Donga

      Hi Lalani – depends on your genes, lifestyle and diet as well as how many ciggies per day. My research leads me to say that if you can keep below 10 ciggies per day there is less than 0.5% chance of getting lung cancer, especially as you stopped for 30 years. I provide a link to an NIH study that the media ignores when selling fear about cigarettes http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/15/3/517.full?ijkey=f64b3818750225ee4fca48137b658e4463d74b0d#BIB1 Enjoy a ciggy with a beer and stay lean 🙂

      October 28, 2016 at 22:35 | Report abuse |
  18. Name*

    hey doc i m 18 n i smoke what r the chances of me getting cancer n how long will it take to cause me

    November 2, 2016 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Keem star

    cyberbully channels are CANCER

    November 4, 2016 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Kiloton

    If you're readings this, then you're a smoker. I wish I never started. It's never too late. Please stop. You have the power to overcome. Please stop.

    November 26, 2016 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 27, 2016 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 3, 2017 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Theresa

    All the Trump voters are in denial, so are smokers!!!!

    January 15, 2017 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 18, 2017 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Joshua

    The age, when I was in college, was 30. The rationale, at the time, was that the lungs suffered a significant decrease in its ability to regenerate cells. It's interesting to see numbers increase in age in relation to cancers when normally younger ages tend to cause a greater predisposition. Granted, it makes sense if you started smoking when you were 12 as apposed to 30, but my question is really about the research and advances that prove 40 is the new number to quit. Why?

    February 18, 2017 at 23:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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    March 5, 2017 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Kaushik paul

    Sir,I have been smoking for one year...on average i smoke 1 cigarette per day.And now i have shortness of breath with cough and slight chest pain....the chest pain and shortness of breath occured recently bt i have cough for more than 2 month...sir can u tell me if im suffering from lung cancer?. Thank you

    March 18, 2017 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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    March 29, 2017 at 02:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. ladooo

    i have been smoking for six years now, but i am not a chain smoker and have reduced smoking to about 2 cigerettes per three weeks two years from now,
    what is the probability for me to suffer from lung canceror any such disease?
    please reply soon....

    March 31, 2017 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. kmata8

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    April 16, 2017 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Emily b

    I can not quit smoking i smoke a cig every 5 min it controls my life and my finaces i just dont know what to do i am a recovering meth addict i quit everyrhing but i can not quit smoking this is the worse drug every made

    July 14, 2017 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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    August 8, 2017 at 08:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Kaustav

    Is it possible for a 18 year old boy to gets lung cancer

    September 6, 2017 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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