Lung Cancer Fighting Foods

Foods That May Help Fight Lung Cancer

Handful of blueberries
Beau Lark/Corbis/VCG/Getty

What are some lung cancer-fighting foods you can add to your diet? You may have reviewed this article before which discusses foods that may help prevent lung cancer, but what about if you are already living with lung cancer?

Don't fret. Several studies have looked at the effect of what we eat on cancer cells that are already present. Many of these studies have been done in the lab or with animals instead of humans, but until we know more, there is usually little risk in eating a healthy diet. (Of course, not all foods are okay for all people, some people have food allergies, and your oncologist may recommend avoiding certain foods that could interfere with treatments.)

The slides below discuss only nutrients you may get as part of a healthy diet and not supplements. Some supplements may actually increase the risk of developing lung cancer or lower the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Check out this article which discusses the concerns about the use of vitamins and minerals during cancer treatment.


Pears on a tree
Pears contain a compound phloretin which has antitumor effects. Photo©Anettelinnea

Pears (as well as apples) contain a phytochemical called phloretin that is thought to have anti-tumor activities. In a recent study looking at non-small cell lung cancer cells grown in the lab, phloretin markedly induced programmed cell death (apoptosis) in these cancer cells. The researchers felt that phloretin may someday be used as an adjunct in the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer.

Phloretin not only played the above role with lung cancer cells but in another study also enhanced the anticancer effect of cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug used for people with lung cancer.

Green Tea

Pouring a cup of green tea
Green tea may enhance the effectiveness of the chemotherapy drug cisplatin. Photo©isa-777

Green tea is another food that appears to do double duty when it comes to lung cancer. Not only has it been found to have a preventive role in the development of lung cancer, but may be of benefit to those already living with the disease.

While studies on humans have yet to be done, researchers have looked at its effects on both human lung cancer cells grown in the lab, and in animals. Compounds including theaflavin and epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) were found to potentiate the effect of the chemotherapy drug cisplatin which is often used to treat lung cancer. In one part of the study, the effectiveness of cisplatin in eliminating cancer cells was increased by a factor of seven.

Keep in mind that most green tea does have caffeine. If you are sensitive to caffeine or it keeps you awake, you may want to concentrate on other items on this list. Also keep in mind that the bottled green tea you find at the store may not be the best choice. Compounds such as ECGC don't last, and the amount found in most soft drinks is low. On a last note, you may want to skip the creamer, as dairy products can combine with and neutralize ECGC. Consider adding a touch of lemon -- which enhances the absorption of this compound -- instead.


Salmon on a bed of spinach with cherry tomatoes, rice, and lemon slices
Vitamin D in fish may inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells. Photo©gbh007

Vitamin D has received a lot of attention in recent years, and a diet high in vitamin D may have some benefit for people with lung cancer as well.

Researchers observed non-small cell lung cancer cells containing an EGFR mutation, to see what effect vitamin D3 may have. The cells were treated with 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 - the breakdown product of the vitamin which circulates in the blood. It was found that in this setting vitamin D3 inhibited the growth of lung cancer cells.  

Taking the research a step further, they then observed rats who had developed EGFR + lung cancer who were fed a diet high in vitamin D3. These diets resulted in a significant inhibition of tumor growth.

Vitamin D which is found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring appears to have other health benefits as well and a deficiency in vitamin D can lead to many medical problems. In addition to dietary sources, vitamin D can be absorbed outside from the sun - but sunscreen interferes with this process. Given its role in cancer, and how easy it is to know your level with a simple blood test, talk to your oncologist about having this tested.


Ginger may lower the risk of lung cancer spreading. Photo©Allyso

Ginger may help with chemotherapy-induced nausea, but it may play an even bigger role for people living with lung cancer.

Ginger contains a compound 6-shogaol that may help prevent the development of lung cancer, but through its actions on the pathways that help cancer to spread, may lower the risk of metastases from a cancer already present. Evidence of the benefits of ginger were noted in treating lung cancer cells in the lab, and It was also found that dietary ginger intake reduced the risk of lung cancer metastases in mice with lung cancer. Since metastases are the leading cause of death for people with cancer, this is an important finding.

Ginger is thought to have other health benefits as well, particularly in helping people with chronic pain.

There are many options for adding ginger to your diet. You could try this recipe for ginger tea or crystallized ginger.


Capers on a wooden spoon
Capers may inhibit the growth of lung cancer. Photo©GooDween123

Some people think of capers as pea shaped pickles, but these tiny flower buds -- native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia -- have much more to offer.

Capers are one of the highest known sources of a compound called quercetin. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant which appears to have a role in inhibiting the growth of several cancers, especially cancers of the lung, brain, blood, and salivary gland. Quercetin inhibits a signaling pathway in lung cancer cells that is necessary for the cells to divide and multiply.

Earlier studies found that in addition to inhibiting cancer cell growth, quercetin also plays a role in programmed cell death (apoptosis) of cancer cells.

Other foods rich in quercetin include dill weed, red onions, blueberries, apples, and green and black tea.


Fresh turmeric in a bowl and turmeric root
Curcumin, a component of turmeric used in curry, may inhibit the invasive ability of lung cancer cells. Photo©bdspn

Turmeric, an essential ingredient in curry among other foods, contains the compound curcumin. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry the yellow color. Curcumin has been found in several studies to inhibit the invasive ability of lung cancer cells.

Curcumin has been looked at for some time with cancer, as it appears to have antioxidant, antiinflammatory, and immune stimulatory effects in addition to facilitating cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells. The American Cancer Society has even stated that lab and animal tests on turmeric look very promising, but is hesitant to recommend this spice for prevention or treatment.

For those who are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, the news is good as well. Curcumin may work to make tumors more sensitive to the effects of treatment with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, especially with medications such as the common lung cancer chemotherapy drug cisplatin.

In addition to cancer prevention and treatment, turmeric is being studied for its role in a wide variety of health conditions, even its potential role in Alzheimer's disease.

Until that time, and since we are discussing dietary sources alone, it probably can't hurt to add a few foods containing this colorful spice to your diet. It's very important to note that relatively large quantities of curcumin supplements need to be taken in order to be absorbed. Three studies showed that at 1.8 grams of curcumin per day as a supplement, curcumin has very poor availability and is undetected in the blood of patients that receive it. On the other hand, when cooked as curry, curcumin has a better availability and is better absorbed.


Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries spilling from a basket
Berries are loaded with anthocyanodins which may help fight lung cancer. Photo©Chepko

If you want to dine on something which fits the proverbial stone that can hit 2 birds, consider berries.

Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries are loaded with compounds known as anthocyanidins. One form of anthocyanidin known as delphinidin made a significant difference for mice inoculated with EGFR mutated human lung cancer cells. (If you are not familiar with EFGR or have not had molecular profiling done on your lung cancer, make sure to talk to your doctor.)

Dietary delphinidin inhibited the growth of the tumors, limited the ability of the tumors to create new blood vessels in order to expand (something known as angiogenesis) and induced cell death (apoptosis) among the cancer cells.

An added benefit are studies finding that anthocyanidins may help prevent the formation of blood clots (thrombosis). Considering that 3 to 15 percent of people with lung cancer develop blood clots and that this is associated with an increased rate of death from the disease, berries may help in more ways than one.


Cooked carrots in a bowl
Carrots contain a compound that may inhibit angiogenesis in lung cancer cells, a process necessary for tumors to grow. Photo©robynmac

Carrots are an excellent source of a phytochemical known as chlorogenic acid. In order for tumors to grow and invade tissues, they must grow new blood vessels to supply the tumor. Some treatments for cancer are designed to interrupt this process which is called angiogenesis. In other words, if the tumor is unable to create a blood supply for itself, it cannot continue to expand.

Chlorogenic acid appears to disrupt a signaling pathway in lung cancer which is necessary in order for angiogenesis to occur.

While carrots are very rich in this compound, it may also be found in significant quantities in flaxseed, apples, strawberries, potatoes, and pineapple.

Unlike some foods which can lose their protective phytochemicals during cooking, carrots are an exception to the rule. The process of cooking -- and even storing cooked carrots in the fridge for a day or two -- may increase their nutritional value.

Red Grape Juice

A bunch of grapes and a glass of red wine
Resveratrol in red grapes may improve the response of cancer cells to chemotherapy. Photo©joruba

Resveratrol, a compound in red wine, has received a lot of attention in recent years, and for good reason. Resveratrol not only appears to lower the risk of developing several cancers but may work to help cancer treatments work better.

One of the problems with lung cancer treatment is that cancer cells have a mind of their own. The are "smart" if you will, and become resistant to treatments designed to eliminate them. Thankfully it's been found that compounds such as resveratrol may sensitize tumors to the effects of treatment. With lung cancer, an intake of this nutrient may help to improve the effectiveness of common chemotherapy medications such as Taxol (paclitaxel), Platinol (cisplatin), and Iressa (gefitinib).  It's too soon to recommend using this as a "treatment adjuvant" but getting a little resveratrol in your diet isn't likely to hurt.

Of course, there is controversy in recommending an alcoholic beverage, but don't be worried. Red grape juice packs a powerful punch, as do other foods containing resveratrol such as dark chocolate and blueberries.

A snack of red grape juice, a few bits of dark chocolate, and a few blueberries could be a lovely dessert that may even quell the thought that you are eating a lung cancer-fighting diet.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce and tomatoes on the vine
Lycopene in tomato sauce may help fight lung cancer. Photo©GOSPHOTODESIGN

Tomatoes, and especially tomato sauces, contain lycopene, a potent compound for both reducing the risk of cancer and fighting it.

Lycopene works at several points in the progression of cancer. It may inhibit growth of tumors, interfere with the process in which lung cancer cells divide, inhibit the spread of cancer, and assist in ridding the body of cancer cells through apoptosis.

In addition, lycopene has antiinflammatory properties which may help lessen both the promotion and progression of lung cancer. Not only does lycopene perform actions that hint it is a powerful cancer fighter, but a study looking at over 100,000 people found that lung cancer was significantly less common among those who had a generous intake of foods containing lycopene.


Oysters are rich in zinc which may enhance some types of chemotherapy for lung cancer. Photo©margouillaphotos

Oyster is a very rich source of the mineral zinc. Not only does this mineral appear to have a direct role in fighting lung cancer, but may stimulate the effect of the lung cancer chemotherapy drug Taxotere (docetaxel).

For those who don't get enough zinc to begin with, it's important to know that zinc deficiency is associated with a decline in immunity -- something very important for cancer patients.

It's hard finding good sources of zinc, and this was one study which looked at using a supplement instead of relying on dietary sources of a cancer-fighting nutrient. If you have a shellfish allergy it's best to pass by this by, but many enriched breakfast cereals contain a decent amount of zinc as well.


Watercress on a wooden table
Watercress contains isothiocyanates which may inhibit cancer and enhance the effect of radiation therapy. Photo©Nadalinna

Watercress is an excellent source of isothiocyanates, compounds which not only interfere with the process of cancer cells dividing to inhibit tumor growth but seem to enhance the effect of radiation therapy in killing cancer cells.

In addition to watercress, this compound is present in other cruciferous vegetables such as wasabi, mustard greens, brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi, and cauliflower.

Flax Seed

Different types of flax in glass bowls
Flax seed may make lung cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Photo©Elanathewise

From constipation to hot flashes, flax seed is thought to have health benefits overall, but may play a role in cancer treatment as well. Flax has a component called lignans which may be responsible for these effects.

Radiation therapy is known to cause plenty of side effects and is known to cause long-term side effects such as pulmonary fibrosis for people living with lung cancer. Researchers treated mice who were living with lung cancer to a diet of flax seed. They found that not only did the mice given flax seeds live longer, but a diet rich in flax seed appeared to protect normal cells from being damaged while allowing or enhancing the death of cancer cells.

How Can Foods Help Fight Cancer?

There are many ways in which foods may help fight cancer. Photo©vitanovski

It can be confusing to think about how food can fight cancer -- even to scientists.

Part of the reason is that there are many different ways in which this can occur, and there are many processes within each of these mechanisms that may be affected by what we eat.

Simplistically, it may help to list a few ways in which this occurs.

  • Cell metabolism - Components in certain foods we eat may play a role in the day to day functioning of cancer cells.
  • Cell cycle control - Cancer cells go through many different phases in the process of dividing. Compounds in certain foods may inhibit some of these steps.
  • Inflammation - Inflammation can play a role not only in the development of cancer but in growth. Some foods have anti-inflammatory properties which could change this process.
  • Angiogenesis - As mentioned earlier, tumors need to grow new blood vessels to grow and expand. Some nutrients interfere with the ability of cancer cells to grow these blood vessels.
  • Metastasis - There are molecular pathways that direct the ability of cancer cells to leave their original site and travel to other regions of the body. Some nutrients may interfere with steps in these signaling pathways.
  • Apoptosis - When cells in our bodies become damaged or age, there is a process in our immune system which eliminates these cells. Cancer cells, however, have "figured out" how to avoid apoptosis. Some nutrients may give the body a needed boost in order to eliminate these abnormal (cancer) cells.

Meals Should be a Joy and an Experience

People toasting around a table
Enjoy the experience of your cancer fighting diet. Photo©Fastrum

Our gut feeling has always been that the benefit of foods in reducing risk or helping to fight off cancer goes far beyond nutrients. What we don't often hear about the Mediterranean diet is the process of eating. Meals are a time to relish good foods while spending time with friends and loved ones. Try to make your meals an experience and a time of joy. Those of us who have lived with cancer know that life is too short to do anything else.

Check out these tips on other things you can do yourself to improve your odds against lung cancer.


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