Caring Currents

Aging Smokers: Who's Going to Get Lung Cancer?

Last updated: Apr 08, 2008

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There was big news this week for those of us constantly monitoring our aging smoker parents for signs of lung cancer.

In three separate studies published in Nature and Nature Genetics, multiple international teams of researchers announced that they've finally identified a cluster of genetic variants that may determine which smokers will develop lung cancer and which will continue to puff away cancer-free.

The risk of developing lung cancer increases by 32 percent  for people who inherit one of the variations, which affect nicotine receptor genes located in an area of chromosome 15. In people who have two of the variants (about 10 percent of the population), the risk balloons to 80 percent, according to the researchers at M.D. Anderson, Johns Hopkins, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths today, killing more than 160,000 people a year. While genetic testing is currently available to assess an individual's risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and breast and ovarian cancer, no such test exists to predict lung cancer risk. Experts were quick to point out that the most important thing anyone can do to lower their risk of lung cancer is quit smoking. However, genetic testing could be a motivational tool: smokers who know they have an elevated risk of cancer might be more motivated to quit, while former smokers at higher risk would likely be more vigilant in watching for signs of cancer.

Would you want your parent to undergo genetic testing for lung cancer risk? Perhaps more important, please share your concerns about your parent's smoking and any suggestions for those trying to help smokers quit.

Image by Flickr user Gilmae used under the creative commons attribution license.