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NM EPHT Health Effects: Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer in New Mexico

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a disease where cancerous cells grow and form a tumor in the lung. The lungs are a pair of large organs in the chest involved with breathing and respiration. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both males and females in the U.S. Lung cancer mostly affects older adults, particularly after age 50. Most lung cancers are diagnosed at a late stage, when treatment is poor and the disease is rapidly fatal. Lung cancer is considered a preventable disease, since smoking accounts for up to 90% of lung cancer cases.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Lung cancer typically does not cause symptoms in its early stages. Symptoms typically occur when the disease is fairly advanced. Symptoms of lung cancer may include a cough that does not go away, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, or hoarseness. Tests and procedures used to diagnose lung cancer typically involve the use of medical imaging, such as an X-ray or CAT to identify a mass, and then a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis of lung cancer. If the biopsy comes back positive for cancer, treatments involving surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy may be undertaken, depending on the type and size of the cancerous tumor.

Who is at risk for lung cancer?

Lung cancer is diagnosed more frequently in men than in women, and more frequently in Whites than in persons of other race. Lung cancer is rarely diagnosed prior to age 50, but thereafter, rate increases strongly with age. Lung cancer is the 2nd most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in U.S. males, following prostate cancer. Lung cancer is also the 2nd most commonly diagnosed cancer in U.S. females, following breast cancer.

What causes lung cancer?

Smoking is the major cause of lung cancer, accounting for up to 90% of all lung cancer cases. Causes of lung cancer among non-smokers include second-hand smoke, genetic factors, air pollution, exposure to asbestos, and radon gas.

Breathing in air with high levels of radon over a long period of time is linked with lung cancer. The greater your exposure to radon, the greater your chance of developing lung cancer. The Surgeon General warns indoor radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

 Learn more about Radon Exposure and Lung Cancer: Radon Exposure

What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

Scientists have found a number of risk factors that make a person more likely to develop lung cancer:

  • Smoking.
  • Second-hand smoke.
  • Radon
  • Asbestos.

You can learn about known and probable carcinogens from Known and Probable Human Carcinogens at www.cancer.org (external site).

Is the occurrence of lung cancer changing over time?

Over 200,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S. The rate at which lung cancer is newly diagnosed in U.S. males peaked around 1990 and has since been declining. Among U.S. females, lung cancer rates appear to have peaked around 2004 and are now thought to be in decline.

Can lung cancer be prevented?

The majority of lung cancers are preventable since over 90% are thought to be caused by smoking. Among non-smokers, steps to reduce risk include avoidance of second-hand smoke, as well as exposures to radon gas and asbestos.

Incidence of Lung Cancer in New Mexico

The overall incidence of lung cancer in New Mexico has remained relatively stable between 1992 and 2005. Incidence rates are higher in males than in females, and two to three times higher in Whites than in Hispanics and Native Americans. The disease is relatively rare prior to age 50, but thereafter, incidence increases strongly with age in both males and females. See the Maps and Graphs page.

Geographic Differences

Lung cancer incidence rates vary by roughly four-fold between New Mexico counties, with the highest rates tending to be located in the southeast region of the state. See the Maps and Graphs page.


  • What You Need To Know About Lung Cancer (1.1 MB)

    National Cancer Institute.
  • You can also call the 1-800-QUIT NOW (1 800-784-8669) hotline to access cessation services available to New Mexicans. Services include sessions in English or Spanish, programs for adults and youth, free cessation items and a personal quit plan.
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