Everything you need to know about smoking and lung cancer – Make Smoking History

Skip to main content.
Make Smoking History logo
Start of main content

Everything you need to know about smoking and lung cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, and approximately 47,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year.

This Lung Cancer Awareness Month we’re raising awareness of what to look out for and how you can reduce your risk, as many cases are caused by smoking – although people who have never smoked can also develop lung cancer.

What is lung cancer?

Cancer is a condition where cells in the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs.

Cancer that begins in the lungs is called primary lung cancer. Cancer that spreads to the lungs from another part of the body is called secondary lung cancer.

There are two main groups of cancer that start in the lungs:

  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) – a less common form of lung cancer, these cancers spread much faster than non-small-cell lung cancer. They are usually caused by smoking.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – this is the most common type of lung cancer.

These types of lung cancer grow differently and are treated differently.

What causes lung cancer?

Your risk of developing lung cancer depends on many things including your age, genetics and exposure to risk factors.

Smoking is the single biggest risk factor as it involves regularly inhaling toxic substances into your lungs. Passive or second-hand smoking (breathing in other people’s smoke) is also linked to the disease. The risk of lung cancer increases as you get older.

You may also be more likely to get lung cancer if you:

  • have been exposed to asbestos
  • are exposed to high levels of radon gas – a naturally occurring radioactive gas
  • have lung diseases like emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

However, it’s important to remember that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

The common symptoms of lung cancer can also be caused by many other reasons. So it’s very important if you have any of the symptoms below that they are checked thoroughly by a medical professional. Here are a number of things to look out for:

  • a cough that doesn’t go away after three weeks
  • a long-standing cough that gets worse
  • chest infections that keep coming back
  • coughing up blood
  • an ache or pain when breathing or coughing that doesn’t go away after three weeks
  • persistent breathlessness that doesn’t go away after three weeks
  • persistent tiredness of lack of energy
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

If you are suffering from any of these symptoms contact your GP. The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed the more successful treatment will be.

Find out more about lung cancer symptoms on the NHS website. 

How do I prevent lung cancer?

Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. However, 79% of cases in the UK are preventable.

The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not smoke or to stop smoking as soon as possible. You should also try to keep away from enclosed spaces where other people are smoking and avoid exposing yourself to anything that could increase your risk of lung cancer, such as asbestos.

Taking regular exercise and eating a healthy low-fat, high-fibre diet with at least five fruit and vegetable portions a day can also reduce your risk of lung cancer.

Need help to stop smoking?

The addictive substance in cigarettes is nicotine which causes a powerful addiction in the brain. However, nicotine on its own is relatively harmless. The illnesses and diseases caused by smoking come from the thousands of other toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

One way of the best ways to stop smoking is by using nicotine that doesn’t come from tobacco. It’s not possible to overdose on nicotine, but it’s possible that you may not use enough when trying to quit which could make you still want to smoke tobacco. That’s why it’s important to use the right level of nicotine for you.

Nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, sprays and gum, are safe sources of nicotine and are very effective in helping a smoker to stop as long as the level of nicotine is right. Vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking tobacco (e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco) and have helped many smokers stop smoking tobacco entirely. There are also prescribed medications that can break the addiction to nicotine in the brain.

So, there is more help than ever before to stop smoking. The best chance of stopping is with a combination of personalised support and a stop smoking aid – like nicotine replacement, e-cigarettes, or medication.

For help to stop smoking, speak to your Local Stop Smoking Service, GP or pharmacist, or call the NHS Stop Smoking helpline free on 0300 123 1044. Greater Manchester residents can also get six months’ free access to the Smoke Free app – usually worth £60 – by signing up online at www.smokefreeapp.com/GM (T&Cs apply).


Content in this article has been reviewed by Dr Matthew Evison, Respiratory Consultant.