In a new study, researchers have confirmed that it is never too late to quit smoking. Not only does the damage to your lungs stop when you stop smoking, the damage reverses, giving you genetically healthier lungs, which have a much lower risk of turning into cancer.
Researchers found that in a short period of time, former smokers developed healthy new cells to line their airways. This shift in proportion of healthy to damaged cells helps protect against cancer.
“People who have smoked heavily for 30, 40 or more years often say to me that it’s too late to stop smoking—the damage is already done,” said the study’s joint senior author Dr. Peter Campbell from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
“What is so exciting about our study is that it shows that it’s never too late to quit—some of the people in our study had smoked more than 15,000 packs of cigarettes over their life, but within a few years of quitting, many of the cells lining their airways showed no evidence of damage from tobacco.”
It’s not new to think that smoking cessation creates healthier lungs. But the researchers were surprised and “were totally unprepared” over the seemingly “magical” occurrence of the airway regeneration.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in America. By a lot. Smoking can lead to cancer because the damage from the smoke causes the cells that make up the lungs and airway to create genetic errors when replicating, causing “driver mutations” which eventually cause the cells to divide uncontrollably and become cancerous.
The research is part of the $26 million Mutographs of Cancer project: a Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge initiative conducted jointly by cancer researchers Wellcome Sanger Institute and UCL. The project detects DNA “signatures” that indicate the source of damage, to better understand the causes of cancer, and discover the ones we may not yet be aware of.
Dr. Kate Gowers, joint first author from UCL, said: “Our study is the first time that scientists have looked in detail at the genetic effects of smoking on individual healthy lung cells. We found that even these healthy lung cells from smokers contained thousands of genetic mutations. These can be thought of as mini time-bombs waiting for the next hit that causes them to progress to cancer. Further research with larger numbers of people is needed to understand how cancer develops from these damaged lung cells.”
While the study showed that these healthy lung cells could start to repair the lining of the airways in ex-smokers and help protect them against lung cancer, smoking also causes damage deeper in the lung that can lead to emphysema—chronic lung disease. This damage is not reversible, even after stopping smoking.
It’s best to never start but if you are a smoker, it’s never too late to quit and stopping at any stage, at any age, significantly lowers your risk of cancer. For tips on how to quit smoking go to https://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/ss/slideshow-13-best-quit-smoking-tips-ever.