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If I quit smoking, can I still get cancer?

A man leans on a door as he looks outside

There’s nothing better you can do for your health than quit

A man leans on a door as he looks outside

Whether you gave up cigarettes yesterday, a week ago, a year ago or even a decade ago, you deserve to be congratulated. You’ve achieved an incredibly difficult task – and done something truly invaluable for your health. So well done!

If you’re thinking about quitting, there’s quite literally nothing better you can do for your body – which, incredibly, starts to repair itself within just six hours of smoking your last cigarette!

What are the risk factors of smoking?

The risks associated with smoking are very real. Of the more than 4000 different chemicals in tobacco, 250 are harmful, and more than 50 are known to cause cancer. As well as causing 16 different types of cancer (that’s right – not just lung cancer), smoking can cause asthma, heart disease, lung disease (including chronic respiratory disease and infections), along with diseases of the eyes, teeth, stomach, gut and bowel.

Smoking can also damage your immune system, affect erectile functioning, increase anxiety and depression, and cause premature skin ageing. Smokers are also two to four times more likely to have a heart attack and two times more likely to have a stroke.

The good news is, quitting reduces every single one of these risk factors.

Can your lungs recover from smoking?

In a word, yes.

After just two months, your lungs will no longer be producing extra phlegm caused by smoking. One year after quitting, breathing will be easier than if you’d kept smoking, and 10 years on from stopping smoking, your risk of lung cancer is less than half that of a continuing smoker. Those are some pretty excellent reasons to put down the packet.

Cigarettes and cancer

Tobacco smoke is widely considered the greatest preventable cause of cancer, causing up to 1.5 million cancer deaths worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization. In Australia, smoking is the leading cause of cancer, accounting for around half of the country’s preventable cancer deaths and causes more than 16,600 deaths annually.

It’s impossible to put an exact number on how many years of smoking causes cancer, but we do know one thing for sure: the less you smoke, the better.
“The earlier you quit, the closer you get to your health risks matching those of the non-smoking population,” says Dr Hamish Black, nib group medical advisor.

In fact, giving up cigarettes is one of the most important things a smoker can do to reduce their cancer risk. Quitting by age 30 will reduce your risk of lung cancer by 90%, making your life expectancy similar to someone who’s never smoked.

Quitting by age 40 helps you avoid around 90% of the risk of early death. Giving up smoking by 50 will see you add six additional years to your life (compared to continuing smokers); and by 60 will help you reduce your risk of lung cancer by about 50%.

Related: 9 reasons to quit smoking today

A Quit Smoking Infographic showing various benefits that occur at various times after your last cigarette

What percentage of smokers get lung cancer?

People who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop or die from lung cancer than those who don’t smoke, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control. Smoking is estimated to be the cause of about 90% of lung cancer in Australian men and 65% of lung cancer in Australian women. However, quitting is known to reduce cancer risk.

While the chances of developing lung cancer are still likely to remain higher for ex-smokers than they are for people who have never smoked, the risk is nevertheless dramatically reduced for former smokers compared to continuing smokers – and quitting is definitely, without a doubt, a worthwhile endeavour.

“Even if you’ve been smoking for 50 years, and then you stop, that’s still great,” says Hamish. “You are healthier for every cigarette you don’t smoke, especially if you reduce other risk factors, such as alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, staying at a healthy weight and so on.”

It’s also important to reduce your risk of lung cancer further by avoiding second-hand smoking.

Is vaping any better?

Very little research has been done around e-cigarettes – rechargeable devices that heat a liquid (often containing nicotine) to produce a vapour (hence the term ‘vaping’) that users inhale.

“Just like with cigarettes, it’s hard to break down exactly what e-cigarette manufacturers are putting in the fluids that people are inhaling when they vape,” explains Hamish. “They put all sorts of things in the liquid, and there are no real controls over what they can put in there – and we don’t know the effects of these chemicals.”

Nicotine – whether smoked via a cigarette or vaped – is a highly addictive drug and can cause health problems, says Hamish, including cardiac disease, blood pressure issues and vascular disease.

“Ultimately, I do not recommend vaping as an alternative to smoking. I recommend stopping both.”

Related: 8 ways e-cigarettes are worse for your health than you think

Credit: nib health insurance

What are the signs of lung cancer?

It’s important to keep in mind that simply having any of the symptoms of lung cancer does not necessarily mean you have it. Many lung cancer symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so if you’re experiencing any of the below, stay calm and visit your healthcare provider.

  • A cough that doesn’t go away (lasting three weeks or more) or gets worse

  • Breathlessness or shortness of breath

  • Chest or shoulder pain

  • A recurrent chest infection or one lasting more than three weeks

  • Coughing or spitting up blood or rust-coloured phlegm

  • Fatigue or weakness

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hoarse voice

  • Wheezing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Abdominal or joint pain

  • Enlarged fingertips (finger clubbing)

Your doctor will be able to perform routine tests to find out what’s causing your symptoms. These may include chest X-rays, testing phlegm samples, bone scans and CT scans.

While talk of lung cancer is unquestionably frightening, it is important to keep in mind that quitting smoking (or never starting) is the best thing you can do to reduce your risk and put your health first.

Related: How I successfully quit: Three ex-smokers share their stories

Ready to quit smoking?

If your goal is to give up smoking, we want to help you achieve it; that’s why we offer Extras covers that include benefits for nicotine replacement therapies that are ordered by your GP, including gum, patches, inhalers and lozenges. The aim of these therapies is to help you quit by replacing some of the addictive nicotine you’d normally get through a cigarette to help ease the withdrawal symptoms.

If you’re not with nib, but you’d like to find out more about our cover options, get a quote today or contact our award-winning member service team on 13 16 42.

For coping strategies and quitting methods, visit quitnow.gov.au or call the Quitline on 13 78 48.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

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