When cancer and smoking come in the same sentence, many people think about lung cancer. This is because lung cancer was the first to be associated with smoking and the way smoking could lead to lung disease is more obvious. But fewer people realize that cancer risk from smoking goes far beyond the lungs. The carcinogens in smoke penetrate deep into the body and affect many other organs. In an effort to put real numbers on the damage cancer does to the human body and to the health of the population as a whole, a group of researchers have published a study analyzing how smoking contributes to cancer death in America.
How does smoking lead to cancer?
Cigarette smoke contains a variety of chemicals given off by the tobacco leaves, chemicals they’re treated with and paper and plastic housing they’re surrounded by. While these chemicals might not start out as harmful, the burning process dramatically changes their chemical structure, often for the worse. Each puff of smoke from a cigarette contains over 40 chemicals known to cause cancer and another 400 known to be toxic.
These chemicals enter your lungs and penetrate cells, latching onto and damaging their DNA. Over time, this repeated DNA damage can lead to cancer. But the chemicals don’t just stop in the lungs. They move into the millions of tiny blood vessels normally used to pick up oxygen and travel through the blood. This means they can and do reach virtually any organ in the body and wreak havoc on the DNA of individual cells.
Why doesn’t everyone who smokes get cancer?
Some smokers point out that not everyone who smokes gets cancer and hope that they’ll be one of the lucky few. While it’s true that a select few may escape a death from cancer, many die from heart disease, stroke, and other health conditions caused or aided by smoking before they’re old enough to get cancer. That means that it’s not just cancer that’s a cause for concern. Smoking increases your risk for a host of other diseases that make it more and more difficult to enjoy your life and to live without the need for multiple medications and regular visits to the hospital and to the doctor. While not everyone gets cancer, everyone who smokes loses years of their life as a result.
Which types of cancer does smoking cause?
The research team gathered population data about smoking and death from different cancers from across the country. They used statistical analyses to break down those cancer deaths and to sort out which were likely caused by smoking and which were not. They found that the following 12 cancers were associated with smoking or being exposed to smoke second-hand:
- Oral cancer
- Throat cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Blood cancer (myeloid leukemia)
- Stomach cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Liver cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Cervical cancer
How many people die from cancer related to smoking?
The team also tallied up all of the deaths caused by cancer related to smoking. While lung cancer was the highest at almost 87,000 people, colorectal cancer killed more than 26,000 and pancreatic cancer more than 14,000. All told, more than 100,000 people died in 2011 from a cancer caused by smoking. When the researchers compared that number to the total number of deaths from those 12 cancers, smoking caused almost half of all of them.
What can I do?
While this study paints a dire picture of your future as a smoker, not all is lost. Many of these effects can be partly or completely reversed if a person quits. Over time, cancer risk, heart disease risk, stroke risk and lung disease risk all drop and years are added back onto a person’s life. Many of these cancers can be prevented by quitting. Take the first step and talk to your doctor about how to cut down on how much you smoke and eventually quit. If you’re concerned about a loved one who smokes, talk to them about it. Focus on what they have to gain by quitting, rather than what they have to lose. Every action helps push them towards making the right decision for their health.