Q: Am I at risk for lung cancer even after I quit smoking?

A: The risk of lung cancer decreases and continues to decrease the longer you are smoke-free. However, the damage from smoking can never be completely undone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarettes kill more than 480,000 Americans each year. Quitting while you are younger reduces your health risks more, but quitting at any age can give back years of life that would be lost by continuing to smoke.

After deciding to quit smoking, the health benefits start immediately, even if you have an existing smoking-related disease. Some benefits include decreased risk of:

  • Stroke and heart attack.

  • Lung function decline.

  • Lung cancer.

  • Diabetes.

  • Pregnancy-related complications.

  • Osteoporosis and bone fracture.

  • Gum disease.

If you are, or were, a longtime smoker, you should get screened for lung cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening for those ages 55 to 80 who have a 30-pack per year smoking history, and who currently smoke or who have quit within the last 15 years.

Symptoms of lung cancer often do not show up until the later stages of the disease, hence the need for screening. They include persistent cough, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Most insurance plans, including Medicare, cover a low-dose chest CAT scan. If you fit the criteria or have these symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting screened. Check with your insurer and ask whether there is a co-pay. Additionally, your physician must write a prescription to perform the screening.

Ajay Pillai, M.D., is a pulmonologist at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital and Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital

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