Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in American men and women, after non-melanoma skin cancer. With a well-earned reputation as one of the hardest cancers to treat, it is responsible for one out of every four cancer-related deaths in the U.S.
Lung cancer usually affects older people; roughly 2 out of every 3 patients diagnosed with this disease are 65 years or older. Most cases are caused by smoking, but lung cancer risk can also be increased by exposure to radon, asbestos, and air pollution, among other risk factors.
There are two types of lung cancer – “non-small cell” lung cancer and “small cell” lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer makes up the majority, or about 85% of all cases. The remaining 10-15% are made up of small cell lung cancers, which are more dangerous and spread quickly.
Despite the seriousness of this disease, this cancer can be treated if the condition is detected early on. Unfortunately, symptoms typically only appear when the disease is fairly well advanced, when it is too late for treatment to be effective.
Typical symptoms of lung cancer 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
Causes of Lung Cancer – Smoking
Smoking is the main cause, responsible for 80-90% of all lung cancer cases. Cigarette smokers die at a much younger age than non-smokers. This is because cigarette smoke contains over 70 known cancer-causing substances that damage lung cells.
With each repeated exposure – either if you smoke yourself, or if you are exposed to significant amounts of secondhand smoke – your lung cells become progressively more damaged. After years of exposure, some of these damaged cells can become cancer cells. Along with lung cancer, smoking also increases your 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 no safe way to use tobacco. Also, many chemicals are added to these products for flavor and to make smoking more pleasant. As a result, the smoke from these products is a complex, toxic mixture of more than 7,000 chemicals, including the more than 70 currently known carcinogens.
Along with cancer, smoking also damages your lungs, heart, blood vessels, reproductive organs, mouth, skin, eyes, and bones. It makes pneumonia and asthma worse. Smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Importantly, emphysema cannot be reversed or cured, which will slowly destroy your ability to breathe without the help of an oxygen breathing apparatus. Smoking tobacco also damages your heart and blood vessels, raising your risk of heart disease and stroke.
On the positive side, it’s never too late to quit using tobacco. The sooner you quit, the quicker you lower your chances of getting cancer and many other debilitating diseases.
For instance, five years after quitting, your risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder will be cut in half – and after 2 to 5 years your stroke risk will fall to that of a non-smoker. 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 exactly the same as if you had never smoked at all.
A long-term smoking habit can also deplete the body of vitamin C – a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect lung cells from the free radical damage caused by smoking. So, if you smoke it is advisable to increase your consumption of vitamin-C rich foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi fruit, and sweet red and yellow peppers to protect against lung damage.
Similarly, taking vitamin A rich foods such as beef liver, pumpkin, carrots, and sweet potatoes can also lower your risk for lung cancer.
However, the most effective way to lower your risk is to quit smoking, or not start at all.
Causes of Lung Cancer – Radon
Radon is a radioactive gas that forms naturally because of the breakdown of radioactive elements−such as uranium−found in soil and rock. From there it moves into the air as well as into underground and surface water. Being exposed to radon is known to increase your lung cancer risk.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies radon and its breakdown products as “carcinogenic to humans.” In fact, 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.
Nearly every state in the United States has elevated radon levels. According to the EPA, most exposure comes from being indoors in homes, offices, schools, and other buildings. The combination of radon exposure along with a smoking habit will increase your risk of getting lung cancer than either risk factor on its own. However, radon also causes many lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers every year.
Asbestos and Lung Cancer
Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally as bundles of fibers in soil and rocks. Asbestos fibers are strong, resistant to heat and to many chemicals. Also, they don’t conduct electricity – which is why they have been widely used as an insulating material, ever since the industrial revolution.
Most asbestos exposures happen because of inhaling asbestos fibers from the air during mining and processing, when making asbestos-containing products, or when installing asbestos-containing insulation materials. You can also be exposed to asbestos if you live in an old building that contains asbestos and is being renovated, or if asbestos-containing materials in your home get damaged or break down.
In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that roughly 125 million people worldwide were still being exposed to asbestos at work, despite its proven links to cancer and other lung diseases. The IARC classifies asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans,” because of its ability to cause mesothelioma along with cancers of the lung, larynx (voice box), and ovaries.
In workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke, the lung cancer risk is even greater.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that develops as a result of asbestos exposure in the mesothelium, which the protective lining that covers most of your body’s internal organs. Unfortunately, the risk of getting mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos is lifelong. However, unlike lung cancer, mesothelioma risk is not higher among smokers.
Air Pollution and Lung Cancer
The U.N. predicts that roughly the majority of the world’s population will be living in cities or satellite cities by 2050. The high levels of air pollution in cities has been shown to lead to many serious health issues, including lung cancer.
For instance, one study 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 of developing lung cancer becomes even higher.
Turmeric: Benefits Against Lung Cancer
Spices have been widely used 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. This is because they contain many potent bioactive compounds with beneficial health effects.
For example, the naturally-occurring bioactive ingredient in turmeric – known as curcumin – has been shown to counter oxidative stress. This is thanks to its antioxidant properties and its ability to block the production of harmful reactive oxygen species.
Curcumin is also a potent anti-inflammatory compound. Curcumin’s proven properties are believed to contribute to its many health benefits, including its anti-cancer activities. Excitingly, curcumin has been shown to have anticancer activity against leukemia, melanomas, sarcomas, and lymphomas as well as against gastrointestinal, breast, ovarian, head and neck, and lung cancers.
With regards to lung cancer, 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.
Similarly, another laboratory study looked at the effects of curcumin on DNA damage and the expression of various proteins that act to 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 the proteins whose job it was to repair the DNA damage.
Another promising study looked at curcumin’s ability to affect growth of non-small cell lung cancer cells implanted in mice, as well as their ability to migrate to other areas, known as “metastasis.” These mice were either given curcumin alone, or in combination with standard anticancer drugs. This study showed that curcumin enhances the effects of anticancer drugs, while simultaneously extending the lifespan of the treated animals.
Other studies have shown that curcumin prevents lung cancer stem cells from growing, indicating that it may 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.
These and many other similar results show that curcumin stops lung cancer cells from growing and migrating by “turning off” multiple mechanisms inside them that would otherwise have allowed them to grow uncontrollably.
If you’d like to incorporate curcumin into your diet, remember that it is not soluble in water − 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 a little black pepper to dishes that contain turmeric. This is because the main bioactive ingredient in black pepper seeds – known as piperine – can increase curcumin absorption by as much as 2,000%!
Grated or chopped fresh 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.
If you don’t do this already, add turmeric to your diet today to enjoy its many anti-cancer benefits – including lowering your risk of lung cancer!