You’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You are either being treated for cancer, or you have completed your treatment, survived and have moved on with life. Naturally, you will do everything you can to improve your chances that your treatment will be successful and that the cancer won’t recur. And, that you will do what you can to reduce the odds of developing another cancer somewhere in your body.
Not so fast. If you are a smoker, a recent study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice suggests that if you follow the above scenario, you are the exception and not the rule.
You may be among those who think that once someone has cancer, we should let them alone to deal with their disease and its treatment and stop harping about stopping smoking. But the medical evidence doesn’t support that notion.
We have known for years that continued smoking during cancer treatment can interfere with the success of that treatment. And, longer term, it can lead to an increased risk of developing other cancers.
Research has shown that smoking after a cancer diagnosis interferes with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy according to the study. It can slow wound healing after surgery, increases the risk of side effects from radiation therapy, and decreases the response to radiation therapy. It may also decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
The authors of this report note that if the doctors make a point about cancer patients stopping smoking and provide services to help those patients, then between 25% to 70% of the patients will indeed quit.
In the current study, the researchers surveyed patients who had a variety of cancers either recently diagnosed and treated, or long term survivors who were diagnosed more than 10 years previously. Most were white, and 85% had graduated from high school and 26% had some college education.
52% of the patients were either current or former smokers, and 39% of the patients were actively smoking when they were diagnosed with cancer.
44% of the patients were able to stop smoking after their diagnoses, while 56% continued to smoke. Of the continuous smokers, 58% had thought of quitting smoking, while 42% had not.
One sad commentary in this study is that of the patients who were current smokers at the time of their cancer diagnosis, only 44% were advised by any member of their health care team that smoking was harmful to their treatment, and only 62% were told by their health care professionals that they should stop smoking.
So what do we take away from this study?
We know that smoking is harmful to your health. But we also know it is even more harmful if you are being treated for cancer.
We know that one of the most important motivators in getting people to do something is if their health care professional tells them the importance of what they need to do. You would think that having cancer would be one heck of a motivator to get someone to quit, but it obviously is not enough. And if your doctor doesn’t talk to you about it and doesn’t offer you the opportunities to get help to quit, then that makes the situation even more difficult. What you don’t know certainly can hurt you when it comes to smoking and cancer treatment.
For its part, the American Society of Clinical Oncology—which publishes the Journal of Oncology Practice—indicated in an article that appeared in the same issue as this study that cancer specialists could do more to address the issues of smoking cessation with their patients. They pledged to increase awareness of this issue among their members, and to provide the information and resources to enable doctors and other health professionals to address their patients’ need to stop smoking.
The diagnosis of cancer and the rigors and side effects of the treatment are well-known to many of us. Perhaps what is not as well known is that is sometimes the seemingly “small stuff” that can make a huge difference in the outcome of cancer treatment. And, it isn’t “small stuff” when you survive your cancer yet continue to smoke, increasing your risk of another cancer years down the road.
When I was a younger physician in training we used to marvel at the patients with head and neck cancer who would continue smoking through a tracheotomy site, or other patients with end-stage lung cancer who would continue to smoke even as they were receiving intensive treatment.
And maybe those are simply situations where we would all end up leaving well enough alone.
But if you are a patient with a curable cancer, say colon or breast cancer, and you are undergoing surgery and/or radiation, then continuing to smoke could well cause severe complications if you get an infection or a bad reaction to the radiation treatment.
Maybe it’s time all of us paid more attention to the problem, and helped our patients and their families understand that even in these most difficult of circumstances, looking past the cigarettes just isn’t the right thing to do.