updated 9/30/2005 10:26:46 AM ET 2005-09-30T14:26:46

The recent death due to lung cancer of respected news anchor Peter Jennings, who had once been a long-time smoker, reminded us of the terrible toll that tobacco takes. Soon afterward, Dana Reeves, the actress and widow of Christopher Reeves, who had never smoked, announced that she had begun treatment for lung cancer.

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Now, questions about how to avoid this potentially fatal disease are in the forefront of many people’s minds. About 174,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, and the five-year survival rate is only 15 percent.

Tobacco is unquestionably the major cause of lung cancer, accounting for 87 percent of lung cancer deaths. Smokers who quit reduce their risk of lung cancer death 30 to 50 percent after ten years. If they quit before age 50, they can eventually reach the risk level of someone who never smoked.

Passive smoking, technically referred to as Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS), accounts for 3,000 deaths each year from lung cancer among nonsmokers in the U.S. A major step to lower lung cancer risk for people who never smoke is to make family homes and workplaces non-smoking areas. You should also stay away from radon, airborne asbestos and occupational exposure to other chemicals identified as carcinogens.

Healthy eating habits seem to help protect smokers, ex-smokers and nonsmokers from lung cancer.

According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, eating the equivalent of at least four cups of vegetables and fruits a day could reduce lung cancer worldwide by 12 percent.

Although vegetable and fruit consumption is not linked with lower lung cancer risk in all studies, in some cases a too-short follow-up period may be the reason. It may take many years to see the full effects of a good diet against this cancer, which can develop slowly over decades.

A variety of natural phytochemicals may be responsible for the protection vegetables and fruits provide. Some studies show that higher intakes of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and bok choy, could reduce the risk of lung cancer in some people by as much as 40 percent.

Antioxidant power
Many other vegetables and fruits supply phytochemicals called flavonoids. Their antioxidant power may prevent DNA damage that could lead to cancer. Research suggests that flavonoids may also inhibit cancer by slowing cell growth and reproduction and stimulating the self-destruction of cancer cells.

Other phytochemicals, called carotenoids, in vegetables and fruits may also offer protection. In some studies, people who eat more foods high in a carotenoid known as beta-cryptoxanthin have about a 25 percent lower risk of developing lung cancer. Concentrated sources of this phytochemical include oranges, papayas, tangerines and peaches, as well as red peppers and carrots.

Another substance that may offer protection is the nutrient folate, which is found in dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and asparagus. In one study, ex-smokers who were in the top half of folate consumption from food sources – not supplements – cut their risk of lung cancer by 40 percent.

If you wonder what you can do to ward off lung cancer, the first answer is clearly to avoid tobacco and second-hand smoke. The next step is to pattern your diet after the New American Plate eating approach introduced by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Fill two-thirds or more of your plate with plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Experts emphasize that our total consumption of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is more likely to lower lung cancer risk than any particular anti-cancer vegetable or fruit.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research  in Washington, D.C.© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

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