Linking cigarettes and cancer
In the early 1960s, researchers at Brown and Williamson, one of the world's largest tobacco companies, made a sickening discovery: Smoking could cause lung cancer. In public, the company claimed cigarettes were perfectly safe. Behind closed doors, their scientists searched for ways to remove cancer-causing compounds from cigarettes.
As their own internal documents show, the search for a safe cigarette was doomed from the start. The researchers found that burning tobacco produces a stunning collection of dangerous chemicals, no matter how it's grown, treated, or packaged. Simply put, the only safe cigarette is one that never gets lit.
Today, of course, the secret is out. Everyone from the Surgeon General to the kid on the street corner knows smoking causes lung cancer. In fact, it causes the vast majority of all lung cancer, a disease that kills an estimated 161,000 Americans each year. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 80 percent of all cases of the disease are caused by smoking. Here's another way to put the danger in perspective: According to the National Cancer Institute, 30 percent of all cancer deaths are directly attributable to smoking.
Even the tobacco companies are now willing to admit the obvious. A statement on the Philip Morris Web site says it all: "We agree with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other serious diseases."
As Brown and Williamson researchers realized long ago, many of the 4,000 chemicals found in tobacco smoke are carcinogenic, which means they have the ability to cause cancer. One of these compounds, benzapyrene, deserves special mention. Found in every cigarette, benzapyrene is a highly potent carcinogen.
Benzapyrene and other chemicals set cancer in motion by damaging the DNA (genetic material) in lung cells. Specifically, they damage the part of the DNA that tells each cell when to divide and when to die. As the genetic code becomes more and more garbled, cells may start to divide uncontrollably, forming a tumor. It's a slow process -- most people who develop lung cancer have been smoking heavily for 20 to 30 years.
Lowering cancer risks
But if you're a smoker, you should start thinking about lung cancer long before those 20 to 30 years are up. The sooner you quit, the better your chances of avoiding the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, smokers who kick the addiction will lower their risk for lung cancer by about 30 to 50 percent in 10 years. If you go without a cigarette for 10 to 15 years, your risk of lung cancer will be nearly as low as someone who never smoked.
The risk never disappears completely. If you were EVER a regular smoker, you should stay vigilant against lung cancer. In addition to giving up smoking, avoid secondhand smoke, which also raises the risk of lung cancer. You should also see your doctor promptly if you have any possible symptoms of cancer, which include a chronic cough (especially if you cough up blood), hoarseness, shortness of breath, wheezing, unexplained fever, or unexplained weight loss.
Lung cancer is very treatable if it's caught early. Unfortunately, most people don't notice symptoms or seek treatment until it's too late. As a result, few patients survive the disease. In short, the best way to beat lung cancer is never to get it.
If you are a smoker who has had trouble quitting, talk to your doctor for help. With the help of a nicotine replacement product, a prescription drug that eases cravings, a support group, or some combination of the three, you should be able to overcome the addictive pull of nicotine.
American Lung Association. Facts about lung cancer.
Burns, D.M. Primary prevention, smoking, and smoking cessation: Implications for future trends in lung cancer prevention. Cancer, Vol.89(11): 2506-2509.
Glantz, S.A. et al. Looking through a keyhole at the tobacco industry. Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 274(3): 219-224.
American Cancer Society. How Many People Get Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer? http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_2_1x_How_Many_People_Get_Non-small_Cell_Lung_Cancer.asp?sitearea=
American Cancer Society. What Causes Non-small cell Lung Cancer? http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_2x_Do_We_Know_What_Causes_Non-Small_Cell_Lung_Cancer.asp?sitearea=
National Cancer Institute. Questions and Answers About Smoking Cessation. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/cessation
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/stt/content/stt_1x_cancer_facts_and_figures_2014.asp