About half of cancer patients who smoke continue to do so after diagnosis, a University of Newcastle researcher says.
It may seem illogical, but some smokers who are cancer patients believe that smoking is a low risk.
“There can be a misconception that once a person is diagnosed with cancer, quitting is not a priority,” Dr Kristen McCarter said.
“We know from research that quitting smoking even after a cancer diagnosis can have a big impact on treatment and overall survival. Stopping smoking is important for anyone with cancer.”
Dr McCarter will discuss the issue of “cancer patients continuing to smoke” at a Hunter Cancer Research Alliance public event on Wednesday.
She said smoking rates among cancer patients varied, depending on the type of cancer.
“Overall, around 50 per cent of cancer patients who smoke continue to smoke after diagnosis.”
Remarkably, about 80 per cent of lung cancer patients who smoke continue to smoke after diagnosis. This was despite smoking being “the predominant cause of lung cancer”.
“Because of the high mortality rates with lung cancer, patients may feel the damage is already done or it’s too late to quit,” she said.
“But even in lung cancer, quitting smoking improves survival.”
Dr McCarter, a clinical psychologist with the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health, said patients with smoking-related cancers “generally have high levels of nicotine dependence”.
It was important to note that cancer patients “experience significant levels of psychological distress”.
This was due to factors like diagnosis, cancer progression, pain and adverse effects of treatment.
Rates of depression among cancer patients are higher than the general population.
Additionally, people with depression are more likely to use tobacco and need extra support to quit smoking.
Some people smoke because they “feel it helps them cope with stress”.
“It actually increases the level of stress in the body. The environment in which a person grows up can also have a powerful effect, like parental or peer smoking.”
The motivation to stop smoking was enhanced for “a brief time” immediately after a cancer diagnosis.
The timing of support given to help cancer patients quit smoking was particularly important.
“I would like to work with people who have been diagnosed with cancer to get their perspective on this,” Dr McCarter said.
Some cancer patients, especially those with smoking-related cancers, might be reluctant to disclose that they are still smoking, she said.
“Unfortunately this means they don't get the support needed to quit.”
Another issue is that society tends to stigmatise cancer patients who continue to smoke. They need empathy to help them quit.
Awareness of the perils of smoking doesn’t get through to everyone.
“Lung cancer patients are often aware that smoking is related to their cancer, but patients with head and neck cancer, for example, may not make that connection.
“Because it is legal, people think that means that it’s not harmful, or that it is less harmful than illegal drugs.
“But smoking is one of the leading preventable causes of death and disease. No matter how long you have smoked, quitting will benefit your health.”
At the free cancer research event on Wednesday, researchers will also present on topics like helping cancer patients make informed treatment decisions and improving safety in radiation therapy.
Dr Judith Weidenhofer said the event was an opportunity for researchers to meet people living with or affected by cancer. The public can ask questions and provide feedback. The event will be held from 10am to 3pm at Hunter Medical Research Institute.
Smokers can contact the Quitline on 13 78 48 for help and advice.