Ask the Expert

On Cancer: Is it too late to quit smoking if I have been diagnosed with cancer?

By Helen Garey, MPH, Freelance Writer  |  Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Pictured: Jamie S. Ostroff Jamie S. Ostroff, Director of the Tobacco Treatment Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

It is well known that smoking is by far the biggest risk factor for lung cancer, and is a leading risk factor for developing several other types of cancer. Quitting smoking can lessen the likelihood of developing cancer, even for people who were once heavy smokers.

But is there any benefit to quitting for people who have already been diagnosed with lung cancer and other types of cancer?

According to Jamie S. Ostroff, clinical health psychologist and Director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Tobacco Treatment Program, the answer is a strong yes. “Continuing to smoke after a cancer diagnosis can adversely affect the outcome of your cancer treatment.”

Specifically, continuing to smoke during and after treatment increases the risk of treatment complications and makes it more likely that the original cancer will return, and that a new cancer or other tobacco-related health conditions will develop.

Quality of life and survival may also suffer. And according to a recent study, patients with early-stage lung cancer can double their chance of survival over five years if they stop smoking, compared with patients who keep smoking.

“Quitting smoking is actually one of the ways that patients can improve their outcome after a cancer diagnosis,” says Dr. Ostroff.

Given research findings on the benefits of quitting and the risks of continuing to smoke, several leading oncology professional organizations – the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, the American Association for Cancer Research and the Oncology Nursing Society – all endorse tobacco cessation for cancer patients who smoke.

Becoming Smoke-Free

A variety of strategies and medications have been proven to help in quitting.

Counseling or behavioral therapy can give you tools to combat stress and the urge to reach for a cigarette, for example. Some people find that prescription drugs such as bupropion (Wellbutrin SR® and Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®) help reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Many smokers are able to gradually wean themselves from their addiction with Food and Drug Administration–approved nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) such as gums, lozenges, skin patches, and inhalers. These products provide a low dose of nicotine to help manage nicotine cravings without exposing yourself to the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that using these medications can triple the chance of quitting tobacco successfully.

Under the Affordable Healthcare Act, many insurance plans provide reimbursement for smoking-cessation medication and counseling. In addition, many states offer free or low-cost quitline counseling and free samples of NRTs through their departments of health. Increasingly, many cancer care centers such as Memorial Sloan Kettering through its Tobacco Treatment Program also provide on-site and telephone-delivered smoking cessation assistance to their patients who smoke.

“With so many safe and effective methods for quitting smoking, patients with lung cancer should talk to their doctor about which approach will help them quit for good,” says Dr. Ostroff.

Taking Control

Despite all the evidence, some people may still feel hopeless about their diagnosis and their ability to quit. Tobacco cessation experts can help you identify a quit plan tailored to you and your lifestyle.

“Many people feel a loss of control when it comes to battling cancer,” says Dr. Ostroff. “But patients who smoke have an invaluable opportunity to take control of their health by becoming active participants in their cancer care and recovery.”

Learn about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Tobacco Treatment Program.

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