Looking beyond tobacco usage in the search for lung cancer causes
By Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
For a pretty good majority of us, we’ve heard it since we were kids – don’t smoke – it causes lung cancer. It was in 1964 when the first Surgeon General’s report came out showing that smoking tobacco contributes to lung cancer in men, “may” contribute to it in women (which we now know it does) and can play a roll in chronic bronchitis. Since that time, gazillions of dollars have gone into research on smoking and its role in many types of cancer. (Prepare to have your mind blown by reading about Smoking and Bladder Cancer). But what about those folks that have never smoked a day in their lives and still get lung cancer? Let’s take some time today to talk about what it is about tobacco smoke that causes lung cancer, and what new research is showing for those afflicted that are lifetime non-smokers.
Tobacco and Cancer
In the most general terms, tobacco smoke – both firsthand and secondhand – are full of nasty chemicals known as carcinogens. With repeated exposure to these chemicals, the lining of the lungs can be come damaged. With an occasional exporsure, it is believed that our bodies can heal themselves; however, repeated exposures to these carcinogens can overwhelm our body’s natural defenses. These repeated insults to the lining of the lungs result in inflammation and possibly damage to the genetic material in the cells. Things such as chronic inflammation and chemical insults to our body tissues are known to cause these cells to grow out of control – in other words – cancer.
But what about non-smokers?
Over the last few years, we have talked about the causes of cancer many times, including in “The Single Cure Myth.” In this article, we discussed the fact that cancer isn’t one disease – it is an umbrella term that encompasses dozens of diseases. In the same sense – lung cancer isn’t just one disease – there are multiple forms.
Small cell lung cancer is a type of lung cancer that is almost always diagnosed in heavy smokers. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCL) is a term that covers most of the rest of cancer types.
So, the question begs to be asked – what about those people that have never smoked a day in their lives, or even been exposed to secondhand smoke very much – why do they get lung cancer?
There are a couple of things that might answer this question.
Two known causes of lung cancer in non-smokers are being exposed to radon gas and previous radiation treatment in the chest.
The National Safety Council tells us that one in 15 homes in the United States has radon levels that exceed the EPA’s safety levels. Radon gas is something that is naturally produced in certain areas of the country, due to the breakdown of naturally occurring uranium in the soil. It likes to gather in the slabs of our homes and in places like crawl-spaces or basements. Radon is odorless, tasteless, and invisible.
If you live in an area with possible uranium exposure, you might want to consider having your home tested.
I know, I know – you’re thinking – just how the heck am I supposed to know that? There are a few red flags that can give you a hint. The biggie that I know of (because I live in an area live this), is large beds of granite in the earth near you. I live in an area of Texas known as the Llano Uplift – and its basically a huge chunk of granite that has surfaced. Its gorgeous, but it presents more dangers than simply a difficulty in driving fence posts.
If you are concerned about radon exposure, check out the EPA’s page dedicated to this concern. There you can find links to do it yourself tests, as well as professionals that can come out and test your home. I’m probably going to order one this week!
Another cause is previous radiation exposure. The most likely cause of this would be from previous cancer treatments in the chest area such as for breast cancer, certain lymphomas, or possibly thymomas.
One more type of chemical exposure bears mentioning -that to nickel, chromium, or arsenic.
New research into non-smoking causes of lung cancer
In December 2020, an interesting study was released showing that the different array of bacteria in the mouth and throat of people could be a possible predictor of lung cancer in non-smokers. This research matched non-smokers with lung cancer to people without lung cancer by age and sex, as well as other factors. It showed that certain types of bacteria (known as flora) in the oropharyngeal cavity (think mouth and throat) were more or less prevalent in people that developed lung cancer. While this research has many more hurdles to face before any definitive connection can be made, it certainly gives researchers more avenues to study in finding and alleviating the burden of lung cancer in non-smokers.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!!