It happened to this one lady one time
January 12, 2008 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Theory: Cancerous skin cells from your lips, when aspirated, can give you lung cancer.

This was propounded to me by a nice lady doing free "mini-facials" at the mall. She informed me that SPF protection for the lips was most important, because you could breathe in your cancerous lip-skin cells and develop lung cancer. A woman who never smoked a day in her life had had this happen to her. I didn't feel like arguing, because lip protection is important and besides the treatment felt nice, but I wanted to say: oh come on, cancer does not work that way.

Then I realized I didn't have any basis for that. Is it theoretically possible? Cancer can metastasize throughout the body, after all. And dead malignant cells certainly sound carcinogenic. Still, it comes off as a foaftale. (Especially since she also told me that you need SPF protection from your computer screen as well, and that a woman who didn't spend much time outside got skin cancer for just this reason.)
posted by Countess Elena to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
Best answer: You're right, cancer does not work that way. Any cells on the epidermis of the lip are dead, and therefore not capable of any biological function including the unregulated growth characteristics of cancer cells. Secondly, the lung and airways are coated in mucus which has very specialized hydrophobic environment as well as active immune functions that would not permit such an invader, including one originating from distant sites in the host.

Succinctly explaining the finer details of the molecular events necessary for tumor formation to a nice lady doing mini-facials a the mall would be difficult for me, and I have an advanced degree in this stuff.
posted by dendrite at 2:09 PM on January 12, 2008 [7 favorites]

It's really hard to tell after the fact what it was that actually caused a particular cancer. We know that certain things seem to cause cancer based on large scale correlations (like cigarette smoking with lung cancer or sunbathing with skin cancer). It's not possible to know that a woman got skin cancer from her computer screen.

Second, it is generally possible to tell what kind of cancer you did get. Lip cancer metastasized into your lungs is still lip cancer and the doctors would know that. So, how many people die of lip cancer every year? Scratch that. DO NOT google search for lip cancer. You'll be glad you didn't.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2008

you need spf protection from UV (ultraviolet) light .. regardless of the source. Some would even venture to say a bit of IR (infrared) light can also degrade skin and give you a sunburn.

Plasma television screens are notorious for putting out IR light. You can even feel it as heat if you stand in front of one. So if you had a plasma flat screen TV with 10x the brightness (= output) of those currently sold, you could infact get sunburn from standing close to it. I wouldn't worry AT ALL from LCD's or CRT monitors. The amount of radiation coming out of them, in ALL forms, is relatively small. The highest of all would be EMI.

So hogwash on the SPF protection from computer monitors. You would need many times more protection from normal Fluorescent lights than you ever would from any display.

As for the cancer cells.. I have no idea, but i would doubt it. Metastasizing occurs when the transportation is a lot more secure (within blood). If you had cancer of the lips, couldn't it just metastasize like it normally does, through your blood stream? I see the chances of it happening through the air you breath as many times less. But, thats just an uneducated guess
posted by Ryaske at 2:14 PM on January 12, 2008

There's no reason to believe that a dead cancer cell can cause living cells to become cancerous.

And just how common is lip cancer, anyway? And wouldn't that alone be a primary cause for concern?

That idea is baloney.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2008

Response by poster: No fear that I believed that, Ryaske. I considered it for a half second, and thought: if that were true, we'd make fun of gamers for having burnt, leathery faces.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:30 PM on January 12, 2008

This is basically impossible. There *is* a well-known case of whole-cell transmissible cancer intra-species, but that's in dogs, and involves live cells.
posted by meehawl at 3:07 PM on January 12, 2008

Dendrite succinctly covered most of it.
The other part is metastasis occurs from live cancer cells being transfered through the blood stream and latching on somewhere else.
posted by jmd82 at 3:09 PM on January 12, 2008

I was going to bring up meehawl's example, and a similar transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils. This variety of cancer transmission, however, appears to be pretty damn rare, and requires live cells (as internal metastasis does.) And while metastasis does happen, transmission through blood would be the far larger danger, particularly since the top skin cells are dead, which would make this sort of abnormal transmission impossible. Why stop at lung cancer, for that matter - if lip cancer cells could travel through mouth and into the lungs, why not an increase in mouth, throat, etc. cancers due to lip cancer?

Not every lung cancer victim was a smoker, and not everyone with skin cancer spent their time in tanning beds (or, uh, bathing in cathode rays, I suppose.) Sometimes you're unlucky, and your body simply goes haywire.
posted by ubersturm at 3:30 PM on January 12, 2008

Theoretically, I suppose it's possible, though I doubt it's happened. Prove a case, and you probably have a nice Science paper on your hands at the very least. Here's how I think it could work:

Patient's lip is infected with a cancer-causing virus

Virus is activated by UV light

Dead cell, filled with hardy little viruses sloughs off and into the lungs

Viruses infect lung cells

Viruses induce cell transformation

Lung cancer!

Of course, I've never heard of this actually happening, but it's not breaking any scientific rules, at least not that I can immediately think of. But I'm pretty sure the nice lady is just misinformed.
posted by fermezporte at 4:07 PM on January 12, 2008

Of course, getting plain ol' skin cancer which then metastasizes by the normal mechanisms is probably 9999999999 times more likely to occur than fermezporte's mechanism.
posted by rxrfrx at 4:48 PM on January 12, 2008

Speaking from intimate knowledge, the chief means of getting lung cancer from an oral infection would entail infection through the bloodstream. The inner lip tissue, where living cells exist, would have to be affected by carcinoma; from there, the outbreak would have to spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, before coursing throughout the body into the lungs. (No mean feat, as any other number of body regions could get infected instead.) Though dendrite mentioned the protective qualities of the mucous, capillary infection can still occur; in rare cases, injured/damaged alveoli can be prone to infection over time, as would be the case with oral outbreaks.

Theoretically, you could get lung cancer from lip cells by incinerating a massive (read: truckload) quantity of lip tissue and directly inhaling the result. You'd be more likely to get cancer in that case from breathing in smoke than you would in having active carcinoma cells (that hadn't yet burned off the dead epidermal tissue, no less) fly down your windpipe.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:16 PM on January 12, 2008

I should add that untreated lips can become vulnerable to cancer, though they'd have to be chapped and bleeding over a prolonged period, while simultaneously exposed to a catalyst. Again, the inner tissue would be affected.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:26 PM on January 12, 2008

Just more background info: there are (1) primary lung cancers and (2) cancers in the lung metastasized from other places. "Primary" means that the first cancer cell originated there. The primary lung cancers are adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and small cell carcinoma. Asbestos and smoking are the common risk factors for lung cancer, but not UV light.

The major metastases that go to the lung are breast and renal, although anything is possible. Metastases usually happens through the lymphatic system or the blood, but unlikely through the respiratory tract. As for the lips (not known to have a correlation to lung metastases), the most common cause of cancer in the lower lip is squamous cancer and the most common cause in the upper lip is basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell cancer can be multifocal but it does not metastasize. It is locally aggressive so it might spread through the lip but not to distant sites. Squamous cell carcinoma also has a low potential for metastasis. Its major cause include UV light but also arsenic poisoning, chronic skin ulcers, and chronic immunosuppressive therapy.

So back to the lady's claims:
You could get skin cancer without significant UV light: True (see the other risks above) but the LCD screen is not one of those "notable" risks.
You can get lung cancer without smoking: True, a good proportion of lung cancer is not smoking-related
Her friend got lung cancer from aspirating cancer of the lip: Unlikely

There could be a couple ways she muddled the story of her friend:
Maybe her friend had lip cancer that metastasized to the lung through the lymphatics (although by then there would be bone/liver mets as well)
Maybe her friend had lip cancer that didn't metastasize to the lung, but caused lung problems such as blocking the airway.
Maybe her friend had two different cancers, lip and lung, during the same time.
posted by alex3005 at 4:55 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Beauty therapists and hairdressers are my favourite vectors of crazy scarelore. It's futile to call them on their bullshit, which they truly believe and will defend until they pass out from lack of oxygen. Just smile, nod and make ''mmmm", "aaah", "oooh", "ahuh" noises where appropriate.
posted by goshling at 5:20 PM on January 13, 2008

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