Study: 10 percent of cancer survivors still smoke tobacco

New study finds the dependence on tobacco is too hard for some survivors to overcome

Roughly 10 percent of cancer survivors gamble with their health by continuing to smoke tobacco after they are cured, a new study found, underscoring just how challenging it is for people to quit the dangerous habit.

In a survey of nearly 3,000 cancer survivors, researchers found that approximately nine years after being diagnosed, 9.3 percent of them were current smokers, meaning that they had smoked tobacco in the last 30 days.

Among those cancer survivors who were considered current smokers, more than 80 percent of them smoked an average of nearly 15 cigarettes daily, according to the study, which was published on Wednesday in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. The remainder smoked about 11 out of every 30 days and averaged fewer than six cigarettes per day.

The rate of smoking was highest among survivors of bladder cancer — about 17 percent were current smokers — followed by lung cancer survivors, of whom 15 percent still smoked. In ovarian cancer survivors, 11.6 percent were current smokers.

While previous studies have explored smoking among cancer survivors, this is the first to analyze the habit so many years later.

The high rate of smoking among survivors of cancers linked to the habit suggests a strong dependence on tobacco, and that even though smoking drastically increases the chance of cancer recurrence and survivors may want to quit, their cravings for cigarettes are too strong to curb.

“It is hard to quit smoking, and if you have a smoking-related cancer you are probably smoking at a high level,” said J. Lee Westmaas, director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society’s Behavioral Research Center, and one of the authors of the study. “Some people were smoking 50 or 60 cigarettes a day, and that suggests a serious tobacco addiction. We know that tobacco addiction is one of the strongest things to overcome.”

The study also notes that people who are older or who are married to or around a family member who also smokes are more likely to have difficulties quitting, or to continue to smoke after they overcome their cancer.

“Those who were still smoking were much more likely to be exposed to other people who are still smoking – that can trigger cravings and make it even more difficult to quit. If a family member is smoking interventions need to include that family member to try and get them to quit,” Westmaas said.

The study also showed that while 47 percent of the smokers did want to quit, they were not always aware of the various medications and quit support lines available to help them kick the habit.

What’s more, 43 percent of the current smokers said they “weren’t sure” if they wanted to quit smoking, and 10 percent had no plans to quit.

“A lot of them do want to quit,” Westmaas said. “It’s just very hard to overcome” the urge to smoke.

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