National Cancer Institute
Science Behind the News Understanding Cancer
Graph showing 20-year lag between smoking and lung cancer

Lag Time

Chemicals and radiation that are capable of triggering the development of cancer are called "carcinogens." Carcinogens act through a multistep process that initiates a series of genetic alterations ("mutations") and stimulates cells to proliferate. A prolonged period of time is usually required for these multiple steps. There can be a delay of several decades between exposure to a carcinogen and the onset of cancer. For example, a group of young people exposed to carcinogens from smoking cigarettes generally do not develop cancer for 20 to 30 years. This period between exposure and onset of disease is the lag time.

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