Science-Backed Ways to Lower Your Lung Cancer Risk

Expert tips on how to avoid a cancer diagnosis—besides not smoking.

woman  in a kitchen pouring a smoothie packed with antioxidant rich foods to lower cancer risk

You may already know that smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. Tobacco accounts for 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and about 30 percent of cancer deaths in general. But quitting isn’t the only thing you can do to protect yourself. We spoke with Sara Sarwar Riaz, MD, a specialist in Hematology, Oncology and Internal Medicine at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, to learn other tips for cutting your lung cancer risk.

Choose antioxidant-rich foods

“Some studies suggest that consuming diets rich in fruits and vegetables may offer protection against the development of lung cancer, and malignancies in general, by offering more antioxidants,” says Dr. Riaz.

Antioxidants help prevent cell damage from toxic substances called free radicals. You can be exposed to free radicals through risky habits like eating unhealthy foods or smoking. Free radicals increase system-wide inflammation, which ups your odds of developing chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung cancer. 

Counteract inflammation by eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods such as:

  • Dark colored vegetables like kale, carrots, sweet potatoes and collard greens
  • Foods containing flavonoids—a type of antioxidant—like apples, berries, green and black teas, and soy products
  • Cabbage-like veggies including Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and cabbage

Not a fan of the produce section? Sneak whole foods into your diet with smoothies and homemade soups.

Skip this supplement if you’re a smoker

Food sources of antioxidants may be safer than supplements, which aren’t well regulated and often lack reliable scientific evidence. Before starting any supplement, ask your healthcare provider (HCP) about the product and if it’s safe for you.

Smokers should avoid beta-carotene in particular. Beta-carotene actually seems to increase the incidence of lung cancer, instead of reducing it among smokers.

Two large studies were conducted to determine if beta-carotene—a type of antioxidant that’s found naturally in certain foods, but which the studies looked at in pill form—could help counteract the effects of tobacco. Surprisingly, the opposite effect was observed; after about one-to-two years, people who smoked and took beta-carotene were more likely to develop lung cancer, Riaz explains.

Avoid everyday sources of asbestos

Asbestos includes a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment. It comes in the form of fibers, which can be shaped into threads that are resistant to fire, water, chemicals and electricity. Because it’s so durable, asbestos is used in many industries.

“Asbestos increases your odds of developing lung malignancies,” says Dr. Riaz. “Long-term asbestos exposure [like you might experience on-the-job] particularly increases your risk, which is even further magnified by the concurrent use of tobacco.”

Asbestos was mostly phased out of manufacturing in the 1970s. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of it, but asbestos-based products developed before then were allowed to stay on the market.

Today you might be exposed at work, home or in the community if asbestos materials get disturbed. For example, during home repairs, fibers could get released into the air and lodge in your lungs. Those fibers can lead to inflammation, scarring and lung cancer in the future.

To avoid exposure:

  • Ask your employer about asbestos safety if you work in the shipbuilding, construction, mining, car manufacturing or demolition industries. “The occupational use of asbestos has been largely banned in the U.S.,” says Riaz. “But it’s still present in some products like automated brake pads, gaskets, roofing and fire-proof clothing.”
  • If you work in a high-risk industry, always wear a well-fitting mask on the job.
  • Follow protocol for storing and washing your work clothes; some people should shower and change before heading home.
  • If you’re planning a renovation or you’ve had property damage, get your home inspected by an accredited asbestos professional. Also consider testing for radon, a radioactive gas that’s been linked to lung cancer. Read more about radon.
  • Never dust, sweep or vacuum debris that could contain asbestos. Let a professional removal crew handle it.

Asbestos is invisible, no amount is safe to inhale and its effects could take decades to show up. That’s why it’s so important to ask your employer about safety measures and to contact your healthcare provider if you think you’ve been exposed.

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