Your lungs are integral to your health, helping to pump oxygen through your body and releasing carbon dioxide when you exhale. While your lungs are actually surprisingly resilient, able to heal themselves from damage and even grow back (at least slightly) after surgical removal, certain cellular mutations can result in the formation of cancerous masses that can spread into other parts of the body. With the spread of lung cancer to other parts of the body, it’s important to understand what causes this in order to determine a proper conventional or holistic treatment for lung cancer.
Lung cancer has a variety of potential causes and risk factors, and many experts are still looking into the potential genetic causes of lung cancer. Is lung cancer hereditary? Read on to learn more about lung cancer and its potential genetic roots.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer, one of the most common cancers in the U.S., is a form of cancer that starts in any of the tissues in the lungs. This is separate from secondary lung cancers, which start elsewhere in the body and spread to lung tissue.
The symptoms of lung cancer can be hard to spot in its earliest stages. Some people may not show any early signs of lung cancer at all. Most signs of lung cancer aren’t noticeable until the cancer has advanced. However, some of the most common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A sudden cough (unrelated to any bacterial or viral infection) that doesn’t go away
- Wheezing and short breath
- Unintended weight loss
- Chest pains
- Coughing up blood
- Bone pain (especially in the hips and lower back)
- General fatigue
Many of these symptoms apply to other illnesses and health issues unrelated to lung cancer, which is why it’s important to consult your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms or experience any form of discomfort in your lungs. Taking note of any symptoms that seem off may help you catch it before you reach advanced lung cancer stages.
Genetic Causes of Lung Cancer
Cancer, in general, is caused by cellular mutations that cause the abnormal growth of cells. This results in the formation of lumps or masses, known as tumors. These cells may eventually grow and spread to other parts of the body, a process known as metastasis.
What causes this mutation is still not well-known or understood by experts. However, numerous studies suggest that genetics and family history can play a role in increasing the risk of lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers, meaning that lung cancer can potentially run in the family. Research suggests that having a first-degree family member (a sibling, child, or parent) with lung cancer may double your personal risk of getting lung cancer. This risk increases when more family members have been diagnosed with lung cancer. Strangely, this hereditary risk is greater in non-smokers, though smoking does amplify the overall risk.
Familial lung cancer often involves a combination of environmental and genetic factors, so isolating only genetic factors can be difficult. The association between environment and heredity is more complicated than many realize. Your individual genetics may make you more susceptible to toxins and carcinogens in the environment. Furthermore, while there is an understanding that genetics plays a role, science has yet to identify any singular gene that directly results in lung cancer. Instead, lung cancer may come as a result of different genes combined rather than any singular gene mutation.
Some genetic findings that researchers have noted:
- Inherited changes to DNA in chromosome 6 are known to increase the risk of lung cancer, even in those who do not smoke.
- Some people inherit faulty DNA repair mechanisms, which makes it harder for them to repair DNA damage caused by radiation and carcinogenic chemicals.
- An abnormal EGFR gene is common among patients with non-small cell lung cancer, resulting in excess EGFR proteins.
Genes are incredibly complex with interactions that researchers still do not fully understand. It’s also important to know that, while genetic changes may increase the risk of lung cancer, they do not determine with any amount of certainty that you will actually get any type of lung cancer.
Risk Factors That You Can Control
While you may be predisposed to genetic causes of lung cancer that you don’t have control over, there are some known risk factors that you can actually control.
Cancer has many unknowns, but lung cancer is one of the only cancers with a known, primary risk factor: smoking. While not all smokers will necessarily get lung cancer, smoking, which includes cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, is the leading risk factor for developing lung cancer, accounting for about 80 percent of lung cancer deaths. That percentage goes up for cases of small cell lung cancer. Additionally, the percentage doesn’t even include the unconfirmed link between smoking weed and lung cancer.
The combustion of any material, whether it’s cigarettes or a campfire, results in the production of toxic, carcinogenic compounds. Smoke damages the cells in the tissues lining your lungs. As mentioned, your lungs are generally good at taking care of themselves and repairing any damage that they may sustain. However, with repeat smoke inhalation, the lung cells and tissues become more damaged. Over time, the lungs are unable to heal that damage, which results in the cells’ abnormal growth, eventually developing into cancer.
The problem with cigarette smoke comes from the addictive nature of tobacco and nicotine, the toxins and cancer-causing chemicals added to cigarettes, and the sheer number of cigarettes that a person may smoke. “Light” or low-tar cigarettes are just as dangerous, and menthol cigarettes may be even worse as they allow smokers to inhale the smoke more deeply, allowing the smoke to linger longer in the lungs.
Your risk for lung cancer from smoking increases based on how many cigarettes you smoke and how long you have been smoking. And although avoiding smoking won’t entirely protect you from developing lung cancer, it will still contribute to lung cancer prevention.
Even if you don’t smoke, you may have an increased risk of lung cancer if you are consistently around someone who smokes. Secondhand smoke contains just as many of the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals as direct cigarette smoke. Estimates suggest that secondhand smoke contributes to at least 7,000 deaths from lung cancer every year.
Radon is an invisible, tasteless, scentless gas that is produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in water, soil, and rocks. This radioactive gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoke. Among non-smokers, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer.
In the outdoors, radon levels are nearly negligible, but indoors, radon levels can accumulate. Just about any building or home in the United States may have elevated radon levels, particularly in basements. When you breathe radon gas in, you expose your lungs to radiation. With enough exposure, this can cause damage to lung tissue and cause potential mutations, increasing your risk of lung cancer.
Asbestos is a type of fibrous mineral that comprises thin, needle-like fibers. Naturally found in rocks and soil, asbestos has been incorporated into a variety of utilities, textiles, and household items, including insulation, shingles, and vinyl tiling. When asbestos is damaged or broken down, it releases its thin fibers in the form of microscopic particles that can easily be inhaled. With enough exposure, the asbestos fibers can accumulate in the lungs, causing damage to tissues and increasing your risk of lung cancer, particularly mesothelioma. High asbestos exposure is most common among people who consistently work directly with asbestos, like in insulation and shipbuilding. Most modern homes have reduced their asbestos usage, but older buildings may still pose a high risk of asbestos exposure.
So is lung cancer genetic? It’s hard to say. Genetics and heredity can affect the risk of developing lung cancer, but more research is necessary to conclusively determine the connection. If you’re worried about the development of lung cancer and if you have a hereditary risk, genetic testing can help determine if you are at risk for lung cancer. The sooner you are diagnosed, the sooner you can determine the best course for treatment.