When you think of lung cancer, you likely think of cigarettes, and for good reason. Cigarette smoking is linked to 80 to 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths in the United States.
But every year, nonsmokers get lung cancer too. Here’s what you need to do to protect your lungs.
If you smoke, quit
If you smoke, talk to your physician or a trained smoking cessation expert to get help with quitting. The process may be eased with medications and behavioral counseling. Even smokers who are diagnosed with cancer benefit from quitting. It improves the response to treatment and healing, and it can reduce the risk of death.
Despite lingering misconceptions that e-cigarettes and vapes are a comparatively harmless alternative to the real thing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that they are still unsafe. They often contain nicotine and a variety of chemicals with unknown safety profiles.
The risk of lung cancer isn’t limited to the smoker: Secondhand exposure to smoke is the No. 1 risk factor for the development of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Even thirdhand smoke—residual chemicals and nicotine left on clothes and surfaces by tobacco smoke—can increase the risk of asthma, ear infections, pneumonia, and cancer of the bladder, cervix, kidney, mouth, throat, and pancreas.
Eat for your lungs
A healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables has been shown to decrease the risk of cancer—even among smokers. It doesn’t make smoking safe, but it can help protect your lungs while you work on quitting.
A 2017 study suggested that beta-cryptoxanthin (BCX), a carotenoid in yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables, reduces the number of receptors that nicotine binds to in the lungs. Researchers reported in Cancer Prevention Research that a daily dose of 870 micrograms of BCX (about two tangerines) could reduce the risk of lung cancer and cut lung tumor growth by 52 to 63 percent.
Another study reported that eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables may be the best bet. Smokers who reported that they ate between 23 and 40 different types of fruits and vegetables during the prior two weeks were almost one-third less likely to get squamous cell lung cancer than people who ate 10 or fewer types, the researchers reported in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Researchers postulate that compounds in fruits and vegetables may repair some smoking-induced DNA oxidative damage, regulate anti-tumor pathways, inhibit tumor cell proliferation, induce tumor cell death, and reduce the inflammatory reaction to nicotine.
Regular exercise can improve lung and cardiovascular health, and it appears to reduce the risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent for women and 20 to 50 percent for men. Researchers suggest that the protective effects may come from better pulmonary and immune function, improvements in DNA repair, lower inflammation, and reduced concentrations of carcinogenic agents in the lungs.
Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, but don’t walk or jog along highways, where pollution levels are high.
Exposure to high levels of radon, a naturally forming radioactive gas that can rise to dangerous levels in the home, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Exposure to the combination of radon gas and cigarette smoke creates a greater risk of lung cancer than does exposure to either factor alone, but more than 10 percent of radon-related cancer deaths occur among nonsmokers.
You can purchase an inexpensive radon test kit in most hardware and home-improvement stores. If the radon levels in your home exceed 4 picocuries per liter, hire a radon remediation company to install a venting system.
Use personal protective equipment
Occupational and recreational exposure to substances such as asbestos, silica, coal, wood dust, and mold can increase your risk for cancer and chronic lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and asthma. Wearing personal protective equipment and working in well-ventilated areas can help reduce risk.
Reduce environmental exposure
Forest fires, cars, power plants and many other sources emit tiny particles— much smaller than a grain of sand—that can worsen lung disease and lead to cancer. Children, the elderly, and people with lung and heart disease and diabetes are at the highest risk. To lower risk, pay attention to the air quality forecast (find your local forecast at www.airnow.com) and limit your outdoor activity when air quality is poor.
Cut down on recurrent infections
Recurrent infections can put you at risk for acute and chronic lung disease and even lung cancer. Stay up-to-date on vaccinations that protect against respiratory infections, such as pneumococcal, influenza, and COVID vaccines.