Cancer Patients Can’t Quit. But What’s the Point?


We have been talking a lot about smoking over the past few weeks and its effect on COPD, asthma, and general health long-term.  And today, we have more.  Nearly 10 percent of cancer patients still smoke.  Nearly nine years after diagnosis, bad habits die hard and some are saying “What’s the point?”

Nine years after being diagnosed with cancer, nearly 10 percent of survivors still smoke cigarettes – and more than 80 percent of them light-up every day.  That’s according to a new study from American Cancer Society researchers who say the findings underscore the tenacity of tobacco cravings and the need for better long-term help.

“Quitting smoking is really difficult,” said Dr. Lee Westmaas, Director of Tobacco Research at the American Cancer Society. “I think we tend to underestimate the power of addiction.”

Better screening of smoking habits and referral to smoking cessation programs are needed, not just right after a cancer diagnosis, but years later, the study published Wednesday in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, found.

Westmaas and his team analyzed data from patients in 11 state cancer registries, targeting those with the 10 most common kinds of cancer. They analyzed results from 2,938 survivors who answered a survey between January 2010 and December 2011, about nine years after they were diagnosed.

Overall, some 9.3 percent of cancer patients still smoked, the study found. But the rates jumped higher for different kinds of cancer: more than 17 percent for survivors of bladder cancer, nearly 15 percent for lung cancer, and more than 11 percent for ovarian cancer.

Other cancers included in the study were breast, prostate, uterine, skin melanoma, colorectal, kidney, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


Survivors were more likely to smoke if they were younger, had less education and income, and drank more alcohol, the study found.

15 Daily Cigarettes

Most of the current smokers – some 83 percent – lit up every day and smoked an average of nearly 15 cigarettes a day. Forty percent of the daily smokers puffed more than 15 cigarettes each day, the study found.

“That’s not surprising,” said Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a clinical psychologist and expert in smoking cessation with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Public Health Sciences Division.

“You’d think it’s logical that a cancer diagnosis would be a wake-up call to people,” Bricker said. “But it’s not true.”

In fact, years of work with the Fred Hutch Cancer Prevention Program have shown him that it’s common to continue to smoke despite the disease.

“People may be blocking it, in a sense compartmentalizing the cancer from the behavior,” he said. “In general, when you get a specific medical diagnosis, the level of lifestyle change is very mild.”

The figures in the new study are lower than other estimates of smoking among cancer patients, which have shown that between 15 percent and 18 percent continue to smoke after diagnosis.

But the explanation for that is likely a grim one. Previous studies had looked at cancer patients who quit smoking shortly after diagnosis, not nearly a decade later.

So What’s the Point?

The crucial question – why would someone with cancer still smoke? – is a tough one. Part of it may be denying the link between the cigarettes and the disease, but part of it may be a kind of fatalistic view of life after cancer.

“The perspective some people have is ‘What’s the point?’” Bricker said. “The worst that can happen has happened. It’s too late. It doesn’t matter.”

In fact, quitting smoking does matter, even among the older cancer patients in the study, who had a mean age of 65. Health benefits of kicking the habit start almost immediately: Within a month, the heart rate returns to normal; within a year, wound healing improves and the overall quality of life gets better.

Nearly half of the smokers in the study said they planned to quit, and, of those, about 40 percent intended to stop within the next month. “The motivation is there,” Westmaas said.

Getting formal help is crucial.  And YOU can help your patients to stop.  And YOU can do that today.

Cancer.  COPD.  Asthma. Smoking.  It’s time to convince your patients to stop smoking.  As an aid to smoking cessation, a Breath CO monitor can be used as a motivational and educational tool.  Self-reported smoking status has been shown to be unreliable and a CO monitor replaces this. 

For more information about how you can help your patients with their treatment plan and get them to stop smoking once and for all, join our family of Smoking Cessation products today, at

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