Lung Cancer Fighting Foods

Phytochemicals That Affect Cancer Cells

You've probably heard quite a bit about the foods that may lower your risk of developing a cancer such as lung cancer. But what if you are already living with the disease? What should you eat to raise the odds in your favor?

It can be confusing to think about how food can fight cancer, even to scientists.

Part of the reason is that there are many different ways in which this can occur, and there are many processes within each of these mechanisms that may be affected by what we eat.

  • Cell metabolism: Components in certain foods we eat may play a role in the day to day functioning of cancer cells.
  • Cell cycle control: Cancer cells go through many different phases in the process of dividing. Compounds in certain foods may inhibit some of these steps.
  • Inflammation: Inflammation can play a role not only in the development of cancer but in growth. We are learning that the "microenvironment" surrounding cancer cells may play a role in whether a cancer progresses or not. Some foods have anti-inflammatory properties which could change this process.
  • Angiogenesis: As mentioned earlier, tumors need to grow new blood vessels to grow and expand. Some nutrients interfere with the ability of cancer cells to grow these blood vessels.
  • Metastasis: There are molecular pathways that direct the ability of cancer cells to leave their original site and travel to other regions of the body. Some nutrients may interfere with steps in these signaling pathways.
  • Apoptosis: When cells in our bodies become damaged or age, there is a process in our immune system which eliminates these cells. Cancer cells, however, have "figured out" how to avoid apoptosis. Some nutrients may give the body a needed boost in order to eliminate these abnormal (cancer) cells.


Pears on a tree


In a recent study looking at non-small cell lung cancer cells grown in the lab, phloretin, which is found in pears and apples, markedly induced programmed cell death (apoptosis) in these cancer cells. The researchers felt that phloretin may someday be used as an adjunct in the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer.

Phloretin not only played the above role with lung cancer cells but in another study also enhanced the anticancer effect of cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug used for people with lung cancer. In addition to its possible effect on cancer, phloretin may reduce fibrosis in the lungs, such as that commonly associated with radiation therapy.

Pears (as well as apples) contain a phytochemical called phloretin that is thought to have anti-tumor activities.


Green Tea

Pouring a cup of green tea


Green tea is another food that appears to do double duty when it comes to lung cancer.

Not only has green tea been found to have a preventive role in the development of lung cancer, but may be of benefit to those already living with the disease.

While studies on humans have yet to be done, researchers have looked at its effects on both human lung cancer cells grown in the lab, and in animals. Compounds including theaflavin and epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) were found to potentiate the effect of the chemotherapy drug cisplatin which is often used to treat lung cancer. In one part of the study, the effectiveness of cisplatin in eliminating cancer cells was increased by a factor of seven.

Keep in mind that most green tea does have caffeine. If you are sensitive to caffeine or it keeps you awake, you may want to find a caffeine-free variety or concentrate on other items on this list. Also keep in mind that the bottled green tea you find at the store may not be the best choice. Compounds such as ECGC don't last, and the amount found in most soft drinks is very low.

On a last note, you may want to skip the creamer, as dairy products can combine with and neutralize ECGC. Consider adding a touch of lemon instead, which enhances the absorption of this compound.



Salmon on a bed of spinach with cherry tomatoes, rice, and lemon slices


Vitamin D has received a lot of attention in recent years, and a diet high in vitamin D may have some benefit for people with lung cancer as well.

Researchers observed non-small cell lung cancer cells containing an EGFR mutation, to see what effect vitamin D3 may have. The cells were treated with 25-hydroxyvitamin D3—the breakdown product of the vitamin which circulates in the blood. It was found that in this setting vitamin D3 inhibited the growth of lung cancer cells. 

Vitamin D which is found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring appears to have other health benefits as well and a deficiency in vitamin D can lead to many medical problems. In addition to dietary sources, vitamin D can be absorbed outside from the sun, but sunscreen interferes with this process. Given its role in cancer, and how easy it is to know your level with a simple blood test, talk to your oncologist about having this tested.

Of all the vitamins and minerals in our diets, vitamin D may be the hardest to get in dietary form. Being outside in the sun in shorts and a T-shirt for 15 minutes, however, delivers a very healthy daily dose. That's not always possible in Northern climates (or for other reasons, such as chemotherapy drugs which raise the risk of a sunburn).

If your level of Vitamin D is low, your oncologist can talk about the best supplement to improve your level.



Ginger and ginger tea


Ginger may help with chemotherapy-induced nausea, but it may play an even bigger role for people living with lung cancer.

Ginger contains a compound 6-shogaol that may help prevent the development of lung cancer, but through its actions on the pathways that help cancer to spread, may lower the risk of metastases from a cancer already present. Evidence of the benefits of ginger were noted in treating lung cancer cells in the lab, and It was also found that dietary ginger intake reduced the risk of lung cancer metastases in mice with lung cancer. Since metastases are the leading cause of death for people with cancer, this is an important finding.

Ginger is thought to have other health benefits as well, particularly in helping people with chronic pain.



Capers on a wooden spoon


Some people think of capers as pea shaped pickles, but these tiny flower buds—native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia—have much more to offer.

Capers are one of the highest known sources of a compound called quercetin, which is a powerful antioxidant that appears to inhibit the growth of several cancers, especially cancers of the lung, brain, blood, and salivary gland.

Quercetin inhibits a signaling pathway in lung cancer cells that is necessary for the cells to divide and multiply. Earlier studies found that in addition to inhibiting cancer cell growth, quercetin also plays a role in programmed cell death (apoptosis) of cancer cells.

Other foods rich in quercetin include dill weed, red onions, blueberries, apples, and green and black tea.



Fresh turmeric in a bowl and turmeric root


Turmeric, an essential ingredient in curry among other foods, contains the compound curcumin. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry the yellow color. Curcumin has been found in several studies to inhibit the invasive ability of lung cancer cells.

Curcumin has been looked at for some time with cancer, as it appears to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune stimulatory effects in addition to facilitating cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells.

The American Cancer Society has stated that lab and animal tests on turmeric look very promising, but is hesitant to recommend this spice for prevention or treatment.

For those who are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, the news is good as well. Curcumin may work to make tumors more sensitive to the effects of treatment with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, especially with medications such as the common lung cancer chemotherapy drug cisplatin.

In addition to cancer prevention and treatment, turmeric is being studied for its role in a wide variety of health conditions, even its potential role in Alzheimer's disease.

Until that time, and since we are discussing dietary sources alone, it probably can't hurt to add a few foods containing this colorful spice to your diet. It's very important to note that relatively large quantities of curcumin supplements need to be taken in order to be absorbed. Three studies showed that at 1.8 grams of curcumin per day as a supplement, curcumin has very poor availability and is undetected in the blood of patients that receive it. On the other hand, when cooked as curry, curcumin has a better availability and is better absorbed.



JamieB/RooM/Getty Images

Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries are loaded with compounds known as anthocyanidins. One form of anthocyanidin known as delphinidin made a significant difference for mice inoculated with EGFR mutated human lung cancer cells. (If you are not familiar with EFGR or have not had molecular profiling done on your lung cancer, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider.)

Dietary delphinidin inhibited the growth of the tumors, limited the ability of the tumors to create new blood vessels in order to expand (something known as angiogenesis) and induced cell death (apoptosis) among the cancer cells.

An added benefit are studies finding that anthocyanidins may help prevent the formation of blood clots (thrombosis). Considering that 3% to 15% of people with lung cancer develop blood clots and that this is associated with an increased rate of death from the disease, berries may help in more ways than one.



Cooked carrots in a bowl


Carrots are an excellent source of a phytochemical known as chlorogenic acid. In order for tumors to grow and invade tissues, they must grow new blood vessels to supply the tumor. Some treatments for cancer are designed to interrupt this process which is called angiogenesis. In other words, if the tumor is unable to create a blood supply for itself, it cannot continue to expand.

Chlorogenic acid appears to disrupt a signaling pathway in lung cancer which is necessary in order for angiogenesis to occur.

While carrots are very rich in this compound, it may also be found in significant quantities in flaxseed, apples, strawberries, potatoes, and pineapple.

Unlike some foods which can lose their protective phytochemicals during cooking, carrots are an exception to the rule.

The process of cooking—and even storing cooked carrots in the fridge for a day or two—may increase their nutritional value.


Red Grape Juice

A bunch of grapes and a glass of red wine


Resveratrol, a compound in red wine, has received a lot of attention in recent years, and for good reason.

Resveratrol, which is found in red wine, not only appears to lower the risk of developing several cancers but may work to help cancer treatments work better.

One of the problems with lung cancer treatment is that cancer cells have a mind of their own. The are "smart" if you will, and become resistant to treatments designed to eliminate them. Thankfully it's been found that compounds such as resveratrol may sensitize tumors to the effects of treatment. With lung cancer, an intake of this nutrient may help to improve the effectiveness of common chemotherapy medications such as Taxol (paclitaxel), Platinol (cisplatin), and Iressa (gefitinib). It's too soon to recommend using this as a "treatment adjuvant" but getting a little resveratrol in your diet isn't likely to hurt.

Of course, there is controversy in recommending an alcoholic beverage, but don't be worried. Red grape juice packs a powerful punch, as do other foods containing resveratrol such as dark chocolate and blueberries.

A snack of red grape juice, a few bits of dark chocolate, and a few blueberries could be a lovely dessert that may even quell the thought that you are eating a lung cancer-fighting diet.


Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce and tomatoes on the vine


Tomatoes, and especially tomato sauces, contain lycopene, a potent compound for both reducing the risk of cancer and fighting it.

Lycopene works at several points in the progression of cancer. It may inhibit growth of tumors, interfere with the process in which lung cancer cells divide, inhibit the spread of cancer, and assist in ridding the body of cancer cells through apoptosis.

In addition, lycopene has antiinflammatory properties which may help lessen both the promotion and progression of lung cancer.

A study looking at over 100,000 people found that lung cancer was significantly less common among those who had a generous intake of foods containing lycopene.

Clearly, lycopene perform actions that hint it is a powerful cancer fighter



oysters on a plate


Oysters are a very rich source of the mineral zinc. Not only does this mineral appear to have a direct role in fighting lung cancer, but may stimulate the effect of the lung cancer chemotherapy drug Taxotere (docetaxel).

For those who don't get enough zinc to begin with, it's important to know that zinc deficiency is associated with a decline in immunity—something very important for cancer patients.

It's hard finding good sources of zinc, and this was one study which looked at using a supplement instead of relying on dietary sources of a cancer-fighting nutrient. If you have a shellfish allergy it's best to pass by this by, but many enriched breakfast cereals contain a decent amount of zinc as well.



Watercress on a wooden table


Watercress is an excellent source of isothiocyanates, compounds which not only interfere with the process of cancer cells dividing to inhibit tumor growth but seem to enhance the effect of radiation therapy in killing cancer cells.

In addition to watercress, this compound is present in other cruciferous vegetables such as wasabi, mustard greens, brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi, and cauliflower.



Different types of flax in glass bowls


From constipation to hot flashes, flaxseed is thought to have health benefits overall, but may play a role in cancer treatment as well. Flax has a component called lignans which may be responsible for these effects.

Radiation therapy is known to cause plenty of side effects and is known to cause long-term side effects such as pulmonary fibrosis for people living with lung cancer. Researchers treated mice who were living with lung cancer to a diet of flax seed. They found that not only did the mice given flax seeds live longer, but a diet rich in flaxseed appeared to protect normal cells from being damaged while allowing or enhancing the death of cancer cells.

Try to make your meals an experience and a time of joy. Take the time to set a beautiful table. This may sound exhausting when you are in cancer treatment, but it can be a good opportunity to enlist those people who long to help in some way. Often times, family caregivers of people with cancer state that the hardest part of coping is the feeling of being helpless. Light some candles. Play music you love. Savor each moment while you dine. Those who have lived with cancer know that life is too short to do anything else.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are anti-angiogenic foods?

    Anti-angiogenic foods contain nutrients that are believed to slow down blood vessel growth caused by a tumor. These foods include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, radishes, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, garlic, parsley, turmeric, nutmeg, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. The anti-angiogenic diet is not meant to replace cancer treatment, but instead might be a helpful addition to it

  • Are there foods that kill cancer cells?

    Food cannot kill cancer cells. However, there is research that shows following a diet that includes a variety of plant foods can lower the risk of cancer. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans are part of this list, among others. This is due to their vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that may have anti-cancer effects.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."