Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the country. As the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, lung cancer is responsible for more deaths than breast, ovarian, prostate, and colon cancers combined. With the commonness of this cancer, many are seeking a cure, whether it’s a conventional or holistic treatment for lung cancer.
Part of the prevalence of lung cancer is the prevalence of smoking. While tobacco smoke, in the form of cigarettes, cigars, and secondhand exposure, is the main contributor to lung cancer, the growth of marijuana usage and its legalization in several states has led many to consider the effects of marijuana smoke on the lungs. Can smoking weed cause lung cancer? Read on to learn more about weed and lung cancer, and the health risks that come with smoking.
What is Lung Cancer?
Your lungs are spongy organs in your chest that help to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Lung cancer refers to any cancer originating in the lungs with the spread of lung cancer being able to go anywhere. While this form of cancer can affect just about any type of lung tissue, lung cancers usually start in cells lining the bronchi, as well as the alveoli and bronchioles. Additionally, there are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.
The Symptoms of Lung Cancer
In its earliest stages, lung cancer usually presents no noticeable signs as most symptoms typically only appear in later lung cancer stages. However, there are some early signs of lung cancer. You just need to be aware of them. The most common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A sudden, persistent cough
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Hoarse throat and wheezing
- Sudden weight loss, muscle loss, or loss of appetite
- Bone pain, particularly in the lower back and hips
- General fatigue
Smoking and Lung Cancer
All forms of cancer are caused by a mutation that causes cells to grow out of control, forming masses and lesions that may eventually spread to other parts of the body. While the exact cause of this mutation is generally unknown, lung cancer has perhaps the most well-known risk factor: cigarette smoking. While lung cancer can occur in people who have not smoked and not all smokers will necessarily get lung cancer, smokers have a significantly higher risk of lung cancer depending on the amount and history of cigarette smoking. A reported 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are believed to come as a result of smoking. That number increases for deaths related to small cell lung cancers. Secondhand smoke is believed to cause upwards of 7,000 deaths from lung cancer per year.
Cigarette smoke contains a mix of toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals, so when you breathe the smoke in, these cancer-causing chemicals quickly enter your bloodstream and carry them to the rest of your body. Changes to your lung tissue are almost instant as the smoke affects your lung health by damaging the cells that line your lungs. Some cigarettes even feature bronchodilators, which open up the tubes and airways in the lungs, potentially increasing the amount of harmful chemicals that get absorbed into your lung tissue.
The fact is, your lungs are normally efficient in repairing any damage that they sustain. However, with continued exposure to smoke, the cells that line your lungs get increasingly more damaged until the healing can’t keep up with the damage. Eventually, with repeated damage the cells begin to grow abnormally, potentially developing into cancer.
Weed and Lung Cancer
Although smoking cigarettes is one of the most common risk factors for lung cancer, that comes more from their high rate of use, dense mix of toxic chemicals, and addictive nature. In reality, inhaling smoke of any kind can be harmful to your lungs. Whether the smoke comes from a cigarette or a campfire, the combustion of materials naturally results in the production and release of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.
So can smoking marijuana cause lung cancer? The research on a potential link between weed and lung cancer is still contentious.
As mentioned, the combustion of any material releases toxic chemicals, and marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as those found in cigarette smoke. In some cases, it may even have higher concentrations of toxins. For example, marijuana smoke is believed to actually contain about 50 percent more benzoprene and 75 percent more benzanthracene than cigarette smoke. Research also suggests that marijuana smoke contains about four times more tar than cigarette smoke.
Secondhand marijuana smoke is also known to contain many of the same chemicals as directly inhaled smoke. Although there is currently very little research on the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke, experts are still concerned with the potential harm it could cause as a smoke containing harmful chemicals.
Inhalation and Usage
Marijuana smoke usually necessitates deeper inhalation that is often held for a longer duration compared to cigarette smoke. For people who smoke regularly, this can potentially lead to an increased exposure to tar and other carcinogens in the lungs.
General Lung Damage
Marijuana smoke is known to harm lung health. It may damage the cell linings in the larger airways, often resulting in a chronic cough, phlegm, wheezing, and acute bronchitis. Smoking marijuana has also been linked to the formation of air pockets either between the lungs or between the lungs and the chest wall. Weed smoke is also believed to contribute to large air bubbles forming within the lungs. However, these air bubbles and air pockets are more common in heavy smokers of weed.
Can smoking weed cause lung cancer? Potentially, yes. Some uncontrolled studies with small samples have suggested that heavy smoking of marijuana could potentially contribute to lung and respiratory cancers. However, larger studies and meta-trials find no association between weed usage and an increased risk of lung cancer.
Furthermore, despite containing many of the same irritants, toxins, and carcinogenic chemicals, marijuana is just used differently from cigarettes and cigars. The effects of marijuana naturally last longer and require more inhalation, ultimately resulting in more smoke (and chemicals) in the lungs. However, even with moderate to heavy marijuana smokers who smoked 11,000 to 22,000 times, researchers found no link between weed and lung cancer.
Determining the effects of weed on long-term health on its own can also be difficult considering many weed smokers also tend to use cigarettes. Even if weed does have an effect on lung cancer, some early animal studies have suggested that THC and CBD (two of the main active components in marijuana) may present anti-tumor effects that could cancel out the potential cancer-causing components.
Ultimately, no current studies show a link between weed and lung cancer, but more studies are necessary to determine if there is any actual link between the two. That said, marijuana smoke is still known to harm the lung function and health of the lungs, which can be bothersome and uncomfortable and may still contribute to respiratory issues if you have sensitive lungs.
Experts just don’t know enough right now, but if you are concerned about a potential lung cancer risk, it may be better for lung cancer prevention if you to stay away from any type of smoke, marijuana or otherwise. Or if you or a loved one have been diagnosed with lung cancer and are trying to figure out the cause and how to treat it, consider alternative cancer treatments to create a tailored treatment today.