Tobacco is a harmful substance, there is no longer any doubt about that. The links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer are well established – cigarettes can cause up to 15 different types of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK. But as we mark World No Tobacco Day on May 31, we must not forget that lung cancer affects us all, not just affects smokers. In fact, 10-15% of non-smokers are likely to contract lung cancer as well.
“Some of the biggest causes of lung cancer aren’t associated with cigarettes,” says Dr Charlene Muller from Cancercare, one of the leading cancer-focused healthcare providers in South Africa. According to Dr Muller, lung cancer is more likely to come from the environment and pollution.
There has been a sharp rise in man-made air pollution over the last 15-20 years which affects everyone. For example, the increased volumes of nitrous oxide being pumped into the atmosphere by motor vehicles puts both drivers and pedestrians at increased risk of lung-related illnesses, including cancer.
It’s not just cigarettes and car fumes, however. “Lungs are subjected to compounds such as chromium and arsenic in the manufacturing and car paint industries,” says Dr Muller. There’s also one of the more prominent examples of non-cigarette carcinogens, asbestos. While there has been a big push to eliminate asbestos from buildings over the last decade, the fact remains that there are still many old buildings which contain it the harmful material.
Uranium, says Dr Muller, is not only a problem for miners. “It is present in the soil and groundwater and has been known to accumulate in homes. Radon gas, a by-product of uranium, is also a major cause of lung cancer.”
Of course, most people are unlikely to encounter uranium or radon gas on their commute but that still leaves them at risk from the many toxic particles in the air from vehicle exhausts, power plants, wood stoves, and coal fires. These particles embed themselves in the lungs and can lead to mutations, illness and cancers, says Dr Muller.
And then, of course, there are the genetic factors which are beyond anyone’s control. There is evidence that certain types of cancer – including lung cancer – may be hereditary. However, Dr Muller cautions that this research is still in its early stages and needs further study. And for those who have to undergo chemo or radiation therapy, the risk of lung cancer is increased.
With all that said, things may no doubt seem a little gloomy. “It isn’t all bad news, though,” says Dr Muller. There are still many ways you can minimise your own risk of getting cancer. “Leading a healthy life, getting exercise and avoiding the risks as much as possible will go a long way towards healthy lungs. And, perhaps most importantly, stop smoking as that not only damages your lungs, but those of everyone around you.”