10 Tips for Lung Cancer Prevention

Quitting cigarettes is the most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer—but it's not the only thing. Because lung cancer is considered a "smoker's disease," people are often unaware of the other risk factors—from radon to occupational exposures—and fail to take steps to avoid them.

This, in part, accounts for why 10% to 15% of all lung cancer diagnoses in the United States occur in people classified as never-smokers. (Of all who develop lung cancer, half are former smokers or people who have never smoked at all.)

Whatever your smoking history, do what you can to reduce your and your family's risk of lung cancer. It's never too late to start mitigating risk factors and invest in lifestyle changes that can help prevent this disease.

Lung cancer percentage for smokers
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018. 

Stop Smoking

As obvious as this may seem, quitting cigarettes remains the single best way to prevent lung cancer whether you've smoked for one year or decades. Studies have shown that as many 90% of all lung cancer cases are the direct result of cigarette smoking.

Cigarette smoke contains many toxic substances (including formaldehyde, benzene, and arsenic) that can not only cause cancer but increase the risk of other respiratory diseases. This includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the United States and an independent risk factor for the development of lung cancer.

No matter how long or how heavily you've smoked, quitting can slash your risk of cancer for every year you continue to be cigarette-free.

According to a 2018 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, heavy smokers who remain off cigarettes for five years cut their risk of lung cancer by around 39% and by 50% after 10 years.

There are numerous smoking cessation aids available to help you quit, including nicotine replacement therapies and drugs like Zyban (bupropion) and Chantix (varenicline). Many of these aids are designated as Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) under the Affordable Care Act and are provided free of charge by health insurers.

Avoid Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke is responsible for roughly 7,000 lung cancer diagnoses in the United States each year. Moreover, living with a smoker increases your risk of developing lung cancer by 20% to 30%.

Smoking laws in most states have made it easier to avoid secondhand smoke, but there are things you can do to further reduce you and your family's risk of exposure:

  • Seek out smoke-free hotels, restaurants, bars, and rental car companies.
  • Do not allow visitors to smoke in your house or car.
  • Ask friends, family, and caregivers not to smoke around you or your children.
  • Teach your kids about secondhand smoke and how to avoid it.

Help Your Kids Avoid Smoking

According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), most adult smokers had their first cigarette by the age of 11 and were hooked by the time they were 14.

As much as you might try to sway your kids from smoking, they are barraged with images in ads and movies that make smoking look "cool." To better mitigate these influences, there are several recommendations for parents:

  • Act early: Most 5- and 6-year-old children have the comprehension skills to understand that cigarettes are not good for you. The earlier you start teaching them about the dangers of smoking, the more likely it will become a part of their emotional DNA.
  • Lead by example: It doesn't help to tell kids to "follow what I say and not what I do." Lead by example and make every effort to quit smoking. A 2013 study in Pediatrics concluded that as many as one in three children of current smokers will end up smoking themselves.
  • Be clear about your expectations: When it comes to smoking, don't leave anything unsaid. Be sure to let your kids know that you don't approve of smoking and that there is no wiggle room in your attitude or rules about it.
  • Stay engaged: Studies have shown that kids who have a close relationship with their parents are less likely to start smoking than those who feel distant from their parents. It's also equally important to know who your kid's friends are and to engage with them and their parents, if possible.

Check Your Home for Radon

Radon is an odorless gas that is emitted from decaying natural uranium in the soil. It is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall.

Research suggests that roughly 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year can be attributed to radon exposure in the home or workplace.

There are radon tests available to evaluate your home. Short-term radon tests are good if you want a relatively fast reading of your home. These can be found online or at many hardware stores for about and take only two to four days to perform.

If your home has high radon levels—over 4 picoCuries per liters (pCi/L)—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you hire a qualified specialist to perform radon mitigation in your home.

Short-term home tests cost around $20. Some state or county health departments offer free or discounted tests during Radon Awareness Month in January. Discounted tests are also available from the National Radon Hotline at 1-800-SOS-RADON.

You can find a radon mitigation specialist using the online locator offered by the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB) or by contacting your state radon or public health office.

Reduce Your Occupational Risks

It is estimated that up to 15% of lung cancers in men are related to on-the-job exposures to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). The number is lower in women, around 5%, due in part to the proportionally smaller number of women working in industrial manufacturing plants.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified 12 occupational agents as being carcinogenic to the lungs:

  • Arsenic
  • Asbestos
  • Bis-chloromethyl ether
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Hexavalent chromium
  • Crystalline silica
  • Nickel
  • Radon
  • Soot
  • Byproducts of aluminum production
  • Fumes from coke and coal gasification

The risk of lung cancer varies by the carcinogen as well as the number of years of exposure. With asbestos, for example, the lung cancer risk increase by 14% for every year of occupational exposure.

Employers are required to provide their employees with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on the chemicals used in the workplace. Make sure to read these documents in full and ensure that you are provided with the proper protective gear when on the job.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends different forms of protection based on an occupational chemical's Air Protection Factor (APF). Chemicals with a high APF require respirator masks instead of face masks. The type of respirator mask can also vary.

An APF of 10, for example, requires a half-mask respirator with an N95 filter, while an APF of 1,000 requires a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR).

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of lung cancer. A 2019 review of studies published in the journal Nutrients reported that a daily increase of 100 grams of fresh fruit reduced the risk of lung cancer by 5% in smokers and 4% in former smokers. Similarly, a daily increase of 100 grams of vegetables reduced the risk by 3% in current smokers (but not former smokers or never-smokers).

While this should in no way suggest that eating 1,000 grams of additional fruits and vegetables per day will improve these results 10-fold, it does highlight how important a healthy diet is to the avoidance of lung cancer—particularly in those who smoke.

Prior studies have even suggested that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may have a protective effect in women and men who have never smoked.

There are no specific fruits or vegetables that are "better" at preventing cancer. If anything, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables seems to be more beneficial than eating a specific fruit or vegetable that someone insists is "cancer-fighting."

A 2010 review in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention suggested that people who consume a variety of produce are those who are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables as part of their daily diet in general. Good dietary practices may ultimately account for why these individuals are less likely to develop lung cancer than those who generally eat poorly.

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

Another important step in lung cancer prevention is limiting your intake of alcoholic beverages. According to a 2016 review in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the heavy consumption of beer or hard liquor (over seven drinks per day) is associated with an 11% increased risk of lung cancer compared to not drinking.

The study found that heavy alcohol use was associated with a type of lung cancer, called adenocarcinoma, which is more common in men. For this reason, the risk of lung cancer tends to be higher in men who drink heavily than women.

For help with a drinking problem and a referral to a local treatment program, call the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Exercise Regularly

Even moderate amounts of exercise can aid in lung cancer prevention. According to a 2011 review from the City of Hope National Medical Center in California, routine physical activity can reduce the lung cancer risk by 20% to 30% in women and 20% to 50% in men. The benefits appear to increase in tandem with the intensity and duration of exercise per week and extend to both smokers, never-smokers, and former smokers.

Reasons for this effect are believed to include improved lung function, reduced concentrations of carcinogens in the lungs, stronger immune function, reduced inflammation, and the enhanced ability of the body to repair damaged DNA in lung cells.

There is no fitness program that can fairly claim to prevent cancer. You can, however, achieve optimal health benefits by following the current guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

  • Move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none.
  • For optimal health, do either 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, 75 minutes to 150 of vigorous aerobic physical activity, or a combination of the two.
  • Older adults should consult with a doctor to determine the appropriate level of exercise based on their health.

Be Cautious About Supplements

Some advertisers have gone of their way to suggest that nutritional supplements can prevent lung cancer and other types of cancer.

There is no supplement in any form that can stop cancer. Studies have, in fact, shown the opposite effect in some cases and have linked certain supplements to an increased risk of lung cancer.

While a 2019 study in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry concluded that non-smokers who consume a high concentration of beta-carotene in food have a lower risk of lung cancer, the same was not true for smokers⁠. In male smokers⁠ specifically, the use of beta-carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer by 18%.

Other supplements have raised similar concerns, including retinol (derived from vitamin A), lutein, and vitamin E.

As a general rule, only take supplements if you have a confirmed nutritional deficiency or a doctor has advised you to do so. It is always better to get your nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet than from a pill.

Get Screened

In the past, the tools used to screen for lung cancer were limited and likely to miss cancer in anything but the most advanced cases. The tools today have improved considerably and include low-dose computed tomography (CT), a type of X-ray imaging study especially effective in heavy smokers.

Whether you are a current or former smoker, annual screening for lung cancer can be beneficial if you have a history of heavy smoking, as measured by pack-years. (A pack-year is calculated by multiplying the number of years you smoked times the number of packs you smoked per day.)

While lung cancer screening doesn't prevent cancer, it reduces the risk of death by 20% simply by identifying cancer early if and when it occurs.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual lung cancer screening if you meet all of the following criteria:

  • Are between the ages of 55 and 80
  • Have a 30 pack-year smoking history or greater
  • Currently smoke or have quit smoking within the past 15 years

Screening may also be appropriate for people who have been exposed to high concentrations of carcinogens in the workplace.

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