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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Nov 2016 edition of TTAC’s Heroes Against Cancer member newsletter
Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. in both men and women and is one of the hardest cancers to treat. It is also the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, responsible for one out of every four cancer-related deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 200,000 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2016, with nearly 160,000 deaths likely as a result.
Lung cancer typically affects older people, with roughly two out of three patients being 65 years or older. Most cases are caused by smoking, but lung cancer risk also increases with exposure to radon, workplace toxins such as asbestos, and air pollution. It follows that lung cancer risk can be lowered by quitting smoking and by eliminating or reducing exposure to other risk factors.
The chance that a man will develop lung cancer in his lifetime is about 1 in 14. For a woman, the risk is about 1 in 17. These numbers include both smokers and non-smokers, although the risk is obviously higher for smokers.
What Is Lung Cancer?
Your lungs are a pair of spongy breathing organs located inside the chest that extract oxygen from the air and transfer it into blood, from where it is transported to your body’s cells and used to make energy – while simultaneously also expelling carbon dioxide from blood into the air.
Lung cancer starts when lung cells grow out of control. As these cancer cells divide and grow to form a tumor, some of them can break off and spread to other areas of the body, known as metastasis. In general, metastatic cancers are incurable and usually fatal.
The two main types of lung cancer are “non-small cell” lung cancer and “small cell” lung cancer, based on the way these cancer cells look under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer makes up about 85% of all cases. Squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma are all different types of non-small cell lung cancer.
Adenocarcinoma occurs mainly in current and former smokers, but it is also the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers. It is more common in women than in men and is more likely to occur in younger people than other types of lung cancer.
Squamous cell carcinomas are linked to a history of smoking and tend to be found in the central part of the lungs, near a main airway.
Roughly 10-15% of all lung cancers are small cell lung cancers, which are dangerous and spread quickly. Fewer than five percent of all lung cancers are so-called carcinoid or neuroendocrine tumors, which typically grow slowly and rarely spread.
Despite the very serious outlook usually associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer, some patients in the earlier stages of this disease can be cured. Unfortunately, symptoms typically only occur when the disease is fairly well advanced.
Symptoms of lung cancer can include:
- A new cough that doesn’t go away
- Chronic or “smoker’s cough”
- Coughing up blood, even in small amounts
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Loss of appetite
Next let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the causes known to underlie lung cancer.
The Primary Lung Cancer Causes
Smoking is the main cause of 80-90% of all lung cancer cases. Cigarette smokers die at a significantly younger age than non-smokers. In fact, smoking cigarettes still kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined.
Smoking is believed to cause lung cancer by damaging the cells lining the lungs. Cigarette smoke contains over 70 known cancer-causing substances, or carcinogens that damage lung cells almost immediately when you smoke. With each repeated exposure, they become more damaged – and eventually, after years of exposure, some of these damaged cells grow out of control and become cancer cells.
Along with lung cancer, smoking also increases risk for cancers of the mouth, larynx (voice box), throat, esophagus, kidneys, cervix, liver, bladder, stomach, and colon/rectum.
Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco all cause cancer. In other words, there is simply no safe way to use tobacco. To make things worse, many chemicals are added to dried tobacco leaves for flavor and to make smoking more pleasant. Smoke from these products is a complex, toxic mixture of more than 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 known carcinogens.
Cigar smoke has even higher concentrations of some of these toxic carcinogenic compounds relative to cigarettes, because of the aging process used to make cigars. Smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes also contain carcinogens.
Smoking Causes More Than Just Cancer
Along with cancer, smoking also damages the lungs, heart, blood vessels, reproductive organs, mouth, skin, eyes, and bones.
In the lungs, smoking damages the airways and small air sacs – so it’s no surprise that smoking makes pneumonia and asthma worse. It also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the U.S.; chronic bronchitis; and emphysema, which cannot be reversed or cured and slowly destroys the ability to breathe by reducing how much oxygen reaches the blood.
Smoking tobacco also damages the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Benefits of Quitting the Smoking Habit
It’s literally never too late to quit using tobacco. The sooner you quit, the more you can reduce your chances of getting cancer and many other debilitating diseases.
Within 20 minutes of smoking your last cigarette, your heart rate and blood pressure will return to normal levels. Both your blood circulation and lung function will improve anywhere from two weeks to three months after quitting.
One year later, your risk of coronary heart disease will have become half that of someone who still smokes, while your heart attack risk will also drop dramatically.
Five years after quitting, your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder will be cut in half. Cervical cancer risk falls to that of a non-smoker. Your stroke risk will fall to that of a non-smoker after two to five years.
Ten years after quitting, your risk of dying from lung cancer will be about half that of a person who still smokes. And finally, 15 years after quitting, your risk of coronary heart disease will be identical to that of a non-smoker’s.
Vitamins Offer Some Protection Against Damage From Smoking
A long-term smoking habit can deplete vitamin C in the body. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect lung cells from the massive free radical damage caused by smoking – which might explain why vitamin C is usually depleted in people who smoke regularly.
Increasing consumption of vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi fruit, and sweet red and yellow peppers will help to protect against lung damage caused both by smoking and other known risk factors.
Similarly, vitamin A can also help to protect against smoking-induced lung damage. Supplementing your diet with vitamin A-rich foods such as beef liver, pumpkin, carrots, and sweet potatoes is a simple and effective way to ensure extra protection against lung cancer.
However, adding foods or supplements containing these nutrients to your diet can only go so far and will not help to lower your risk of lung cancer nearly as much as quitting smoking will.
Radon and Lung Cancer
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that forms naturally because of the breakdown of radioactive elements – such as uranium – found in soil and rock, from where it can move into the air and into underground and surface water.
Radon is present both outdoors and indoors. Normally it is found at very low levels in outdoor air and in drinking water from rivers and lakes. It occurs at higher levels in the air in buildings, as well as in water from underground sources such as well water.
Scientific evidence shows that being exposed to radon can increase lung cancer risk over time. Radon breaks down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny, which can attach to dust and other particles that can be breathed into the lungs. As radon and radon progeny break down, they give off radiation that can damage DNA inside lung cells, leading eventually to cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies radon and its progeny as “carcinogenic to humans.” Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer in the U.S. after smoking – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 21,000 Americans die each year from radon-induced lung cancer.
Elevated radon levels have been found in nearly every U.S. state. According to the EPA, 1 out of every 15 American homes has elevated levels of radon. Most exposure comes from being indoors in homes, offices, schools, and other buildings. Levels are usually highest in the basement or crawl space of a building. Also, building materials such as concrete and wallboard, as well as some granite countertops, may emit radon.
According to the EPA, the average indoor radon level is about 1.3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), while average outdoor levels are about 0.4 pCi/L. The EPA recommends homeowners take action to lower radon levels if the level in their home is 4.0 pCi/L or higher.
People working underground (e.g. miners), are most likely to be exposed to high levels of radon. Higher radon exposure is also likely in people who work in uranium processing factories or come into contact with phosphate fertilizers, which may have high levels of radium – which can break down into radon.
Being exposed to both radon and cigarette smoke creates a greater risk for lung cancer than either risk factor alone. Most radon-related lung cancers develop in smokers. However, radon is also thought to cause many lung cancer deaths in non-smokers every year.
If you’re concerned about your radon exposure and would like to consult a professional, there are a number of resources you can turn to for assessing radon levels in your home or workplace, including:
- The EPA
- The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists
- The National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University (Kansas State University also maintains national radon hotlines)
- The National Radon Safety Board (NRSB)
Asbestos and Lung Cancer
Asbestos is the name for a group of minerals that occur naturally as bundles of fibers in soil and rocks in many parts of the world. There are two main types of asbestos, both of which have been linked with cancer.
Asbestos fibers are strong, resistant to heat and to many chemicals, and don’t conduct electricity – which is why asbestos has traditionally been used as an insulating material. Since the industrial revolution, asbestos has been used to insulate factories, schools, homes, and ships as well as to make automobile brake and clutch parts, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, textiles, and hundreds of other products.
When asbestos was confirmed to be a carcinogen, safe exposure standards were established in the U.S. and laws were passed that banned the use of asbestos in construction materials. As a result, there has been a dramatic decrease in asbestos exposure since the mid-70s to 80s, even though it is still present in older buildings, water pipes, and other locations.
Most exposures happen because of inhaling asbestos fibers from the air – for example, during mining and processing, when making asbestoscontaining products, or when installing asbestos insulation. It can also occur when older buildings are demolished or renovated, or when asbestos-containing materials break down.
In such situations, asbestos fibers create a dust cloud of tiny particles that can float in the air. Asbestos fibers can also be swallowed when people consume contaminated food or water that flows through asbestos cement pipes
The heaviest exposure occurs in asbestos industries such as shipbuilding and insulation. Family members of asbestos workers can themselves be exposed when asbestos fibers are carried home on workers’ clothing. Maintenance workers who dispose of asbestos dust or handle damaged asbestos-containing materials also risk being exposed to higher levels.
The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) estimates that over a million American employees in construction and general industries still face significant asbestos exposures on the job. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that roughly 125 million people worldwide were still exposed to asbestos at work, despite proven links to cancer and other lung diseases.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can stick to mucus in the throat, trachea or windpipe, and to bronchi, which are the large breathing tubes of the lungs. Fibers that reach the ends of the small airways or penetrate into the outer lining of the lung and chest wall can irritate lung cells and eventually cause lung cancer or a related disease condition known as mesothelioma (more on this later).
Many studies have linked inhalation of asbestos fibers to an increased risk of lung cancer. The greater the level or duration of exposure, the higher the risk. The IARC classifies asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on its ability to cause mesothelioma as well as cancers of the lung, larynx (voice box), and ovaries. In workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke, lung cancer risk is even greater.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that develops when malignant cells are formed in the mesothelium, which is the protective lining that covers most of the body’s internal organs. This condition usually affects the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest cavity. Similar to lung cancer, most cases of mesothelioma result from exposure to asbestos at work and among family members of workers and people living in neighborhoods near asbestos factories and mines.
Mesotheliomas take a long time to develop. The time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis can be 30 years or more. Unfortunately, the risk of mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos is lifelong. Unlike lung cancer, mesothelioma risk is not higher among smokers.
Air Pollution and Lung Cancer
More and more people across the world are moving to cities. The U.N. predicts that roughly 64% of the developing world and 86% of the developed world will be living in cities or satellite cities by 2050. However, most major cities are already crowded, with significant resource, infrastructure, and congestion problems.
The high levels of air pollution typically seen in cities has been shown to lead to many serious health issues – including lung cancer. For instance, a study that assessed the health of 500,000 adults relative to air pollution in the cities they lived in, concluded that lung cancer deaths increased 8 percent for every increase of 10 micrograms of pollution. When people who are exposed to air pollution also smoke, their risk for lung cancer becomes even higher.
Exposure to diesel exhaust is widespread in the modern world – especially among truck drivers, toll booth workers, miners, heavy machinery operators, railroad and dock workers, and garage workers and mechanics.
The gas and soot in diesel exhaust contain potentially carcinogenic pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, traces of metallic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Several studies of workers exposed to diesel exhaust have shown small but significant increases in their risk for developing lung cancer. The IARC classifies diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on sufficient evidence that it is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.
Promising Natural Solutions for Lung Cancer
While reducing or minimizing your exposure to known carcinogens is your best step in preventing lung cancer, there are also some natural ways to boost your body’s defenses.
Spices have been widely used as condiments in several cultures for thousands of years because of their flavor, taste, and color. Several of these spices have also been used in therapies for treating various diseases, because they contain many potent bioactive compounds with beneficial health effects.
For example, the bioactive ingredients in turmeric (curcumin), clove (eugenol), and chili peppers (capsaicin) have been shown to counter oxidative stress due to their antioxidant properties and their ability to block production of harmful reactive oxygen species. Some plant compounds such as curcumin and thymoquinone (present in black cumin) are also known to have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Turmeric: Benefits Against Lung Cancer
Most South Asian curry preparations contain the bright yellow root spice turmeric, believed to have been used in India both as a spice and as a medicinal component for at least 5,000 years.
The list of turmeric’s health benefits is growing – specifically its more than 300 bioactive components known as “curcuminoids” including curcumin, which have beneficial biological actions in our body.
Thousands of scientific studies have shown that curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, contributing to its many health benefits, including its anti-cancer activities.
Specifically, curcumin stops many different types of cancer cells from growing by switching off multiple molecular mechanisms inside them that otherwise allow them to grow uncontrollably.
Excitingly, curcumin has reported anti-cancer activity against leukemia, melanomas, sarcomas, and lymphomas as well as against gastrointestinal, breast, ovarian, head and neck, and lung cancers.
For instance, in a 2012 laboratory study, curcumin was shown to induce apoptosis (also known as “programmed cell suicide”) in small cell lung cancer cells. This is a promising result because this type of lung cancer is very aggressive and spreads quickly to other areas of the body, leading to poor outcomes and a high likelihood of death.
Similarly, another laboratory study looked at the effects of curcumin on DNA damage and the expression of proteins that repair and protect DNA in human lung cancer cells. Not only did curcumin damage lung cancer DNA, it also prevented the cancer cells from making proteins that could repair the DNA damage. In other words, curcumin-induced damage of lung cancer DNA was irreversible.
Yet another promising study examined curcumin’s ability to affect growth and metastatic ability of non-small cell lung cancer cells implanted in mice. During the treatment period, these mice were either treated with curcumin alone, or in combination with standard anti-cancer drugs. Curcumin was seen to enhance the effects of anti-cancer drugs, while simultaneously also increasing survival of the treated animals.
Other studies have shown that curcumin potently blocks lung cancer stem cells from growing, indicating that it may turn out to be a powerful therapy for lung cancer on its own. Curcumin also prevents the formation of new blood vessels that feed lung cancer cells with nutrients and oxygen. Clearly, curcumin exerts its anti-cancer activities in multiple, powerful ways.
How to Receive the Benefits of Curcumin
If you’d like to incorporate curcumin into your diet, remember that it is not soluble in water, but only in fats and oils. Therefore, it’s best to combine turmeric with healthy oils such as extra virgin olive or coconut oil for efficient absorption.
It’s also a good idea to add black pepper to dishes that contain turmeric, since the main bioactive ingredient in black pepper seeds – known as piperine – can increase curcumin absorption by as much as 2,000 percent.
Grated or chopped turmeric lends both color and flavor to soups and sauces. Turmeric powder can also be added to vegetables along with a little olive oil, black pepper, and other spices before roasting or baking them.
Using turmeric liberally in your cooking along with a very high quality supplement is probably your best bet to ensure you’re receiving sufficient quantities of bioavailable curcumin.
Black Cumin: Benefits Against Lung Cancer
The seeds of black cumin, also known as black caraway (scientific name Nigella Sativa) are relatively unknown in the west. They have a pungent, bitter taste and smell and are commonly used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Black cumin seeds are credited with remarkable healing properties for many centuries in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and India. In fact, black cumin oil was found in the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamen, suggesting that Egyptians believed it was important for the afterlife.
Black cumin seeds are now known to contain over 100 compounds including crystalline nigellone, thymoquinone, beta-sitosterol, and many others. They also contain many of the B vitamins and essential trace minerals.
Multiple studies have shown that black cumin seed extracts and oil boost production of bone marrow cells and immune cells, suggesting that they could be used to treat autoimmune disorders and even fight cancer. Indeed, thymoquinone has been shown to have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and antitumor properties.
Specifically, it has been shown to stop various types of cancer cells from growing, via multiple mechanisms – including lowering inflammation, inducing cell cycle arrest and apoptosis (“programmed cell suicide”) in tumor cells, preventing new blood vessels that feed tumor cells from forming, and stopping cancer cells from migrating to other areas of the body. Thymoquinone also complements standard anti-cancer drugs without any added toxicity.
In laboratory studies, both black cumin seed extract and seed oil have been shown to kill human lung cancer cells. Similarly, thymoquinone has been shown to stop human lung cancer cells (both small cell and non-small cell types) from growing and migrating.
Black cumin seeds are somewhat of an acquired taste, but you can try adding small amounts to soups, stews, and salads – for example, in combination with honey or royal jelly, according to your taste preferences. Black cumin seed oil or capsule supplements can also be consumed daily in the quantities recommended on the label.
Note: If you watched Dr. Bradford Weeks’ presentation from TTAC’s Ultimate Live Symposium, black cumin seeds were what he credited with turning some of his father’s white hair black at the age of 92.
Don’t Forget About Second-Hand Smoke
Lung cancer is a serious disease and prevention really is critical. As difficult as quitting smoking is, you can see how it elevates the risk from other causes of lung cancer, in addition to being the primary cause all by itself.
Nearly everything that applies to smokers also applies to those who live, work, or socialize with smokers. If you are exposed to second-hand smoke you are also at an increased risk of lung cancer. Do everything in your power to eliminate or at least minimize your exposure to all of the lung cancer risk factors shared in this article.
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Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. in both men and women and is one of the hardest cancers to treat.
Most cases are caused by smoking, but lung cancer risk also increases with exposure to radon, workplace toxins such as asbestos, and air pollution.
Symptoms of lung cancer can include:
- A new cough that doesn’t go away
- Chronic or “smoker’s cough”
- Coughing up blood, even in small amounts
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Loss of appetite
Quitting smoking offers the single best way to reduce your risk and the health benefits begin immediately.
Vitamin A-rich foods such as beef liver, pumpkin, carrots, and sweet potatoes ensure extra protection against lung cancer.
Curcumin has reported anti-cancer activity against leukemia, melanomas, sarcomas, and lymphomas as well as against gastrointestinal, breast, ovarian, head and neck, and lung cancers.
Multiple studies have shown that black cumin seed extracts and oil boost production of bone marrow cells and immune cells.