To Your Health

Useful tips in avoiding lung cancer for smokers and nonsmokers alike

Q. Lately it seems like I am hearing of more cases of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Are there lifestyle changes I can make or nutrients I can take as supplements that will help prevent my getting it, or help me if I should get it?

A. Cancer is a complicated malady, and there is still a lot we don't know about why some people come down with it and others do not. Although cigarette smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by about eight-fold, it is not the only reason for lung cancer to develop. Lung cancer was around long before cigarettes – it has even been found in Egyptian mummies – and there are several other risk factors. Radon-gas exposure, for instance, will account for about 12% of lung cancer deaths. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one out of every 15 homes in the U.S. contains dangerous levels of radon gas.

To minimize your risk of lung cancer, in addition to avoiding cigarette smoke both as an active and a passive smoker, you should keep your indoor air quality as clean as you can manage. Research from China indicates that the increasing rate of lung cancer among Chinese women is due more to cooking-oil vapors than smoke from either their own or their husband's cigarettes. Other factors that should be limited include exposure to asbestos, talcum powder, alcohol, marijuana, and certain fungal spores.

While any one of the factors listed above increases your risk of developing lung cancer, combining two or more of them is especially harmful. Cigarette smokers who are exposed to asbestos greatly multiply their chances of developing lung cancer.

A diet rich in fruits and leafy green vegetables helps. These are good sources of vitamin A and carotenoids, phytochemicals such as flavonoids, and folic acid, which are all protective against cancer. Clinical trials using supplements of these and most other nutrients have been disappointing in that while they may help, the benefits do not reach the mathematical goal of "statistical significance," which is necessary to prove that the results were not simply an accident.

While familiar nutrients may not be the answer to preventing lung cancer, some of their "cousins" are creating some excitement. A synthetic derivative of vitamin A known as 9-cis retinoic acid is showing promise in reversing precancerous lesions. Gamma-tocopherol (but not alpha-tocopherol) appears to inhibit cancer cell growth. Also, several vitamins not normally associated with cancer treatment, such as vitamin D and vitamin K, seem to inhibit the development and spread of a wide variety of cancers including lung cancer. More research is needed to solidify their importance in the war on cancer.

If the worst has already happened and you have been told you have lung cancer, you can still combine nutritional intervention with conventional cancer therapy. For years there was a concern among cancer specialists that vitamin supplements would diminish the effectiveness of chemotherapy, but that fear has been shown baseless. We now know that certain nutrients will reduce the notorious side effects of certain chemotherapy medicines without affecting their potency. You will need the help of a clinical nutritionist experienced in cancer treatment in order to choose which nutrients are needed for which specific chemotherapies.

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