Cancer diagnosis leads smokers to quit — but men don't take the hint

Posted at 4:30 PM, Apr 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-13 13:40:06-04

It’s better late than never.

Smokers are more likely to quit smoking after they’ve been diagnosed with cancer compared to those who were not diagnosed, according to a long-term study. However, men were more stubborn than women when it came to taking the health hint.

“If quitting smoking was easy, more patients would be successful," said Michigan Chief Medical Executive Matthew Davis, also a professor at University of Michigan Medical School. "The motivation to quit is very hard to sustain and sometimes requires a serious diagnoses such as cancer for patients to find that motivation deep within themselves.” 

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 400,000 dying prematurely each year. It increases the risk of several kinds of cancers, not just those of the lungs and throat. 

Among the 13.7 million cancer survivors alive in the United States, about 15 to 33 percent of them smoke. 

For the study, American Cancer Society researchers analyzed data on 12,000 smokers from around 1992 until 2009. During that time, about 1 in 5 smokers without a cancer diagnosis quit.

But 1 in 3 who were diagnosed with cancer quit within two years — a nearly 50 percent improvement. Within four years of diagnoses, 43 percent of cancer-diagnosed smokers quit. They were also less likely to relapse into their old habit.

Women were more likely than men to quit after their diagnosis, the study found. About the same number of diagnoses were gender specific — cancers of the breast and prostate.

“The experience after diagnosis could be very different — and far more positive and supportive — for these newly diagnosed breast cancer patients than these newly diagnosed prostate cancer patients,” said Samir Soneji of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

Men diagnosed with prostate cancer may face complications from their treatment like impotence and incontinence. They may be managing stress in more private, less healthy ways, Soneji said.

For women, Davis cited the success of female smokers who are able to quit when they get pregnant.

“Women sometimes have more success in making big changes in their health behavior because they connect into their social support system for extra help and encouragement,” Davis said. “It’s very important to have people… who will help them sustain their efforts to quit smoking through the very tough days and strong urges that will inevitably happen.”

The study excluded cancer diagnoses that were life threatening or caused physical symptoms that would themselves discourage smoking.

Lead author J. Lee Westmass said the study was the first to show that a cancer diagnosis that isn’t directly related to smoking can lead to a higher quit rate.

“It appears a cancer diagnosis acts as a sort of ‘cut to action’ that leads smokers to quit,” he said in a statement. That may be an opportunity for doctors capitalize on after the diagnosis.

The study, published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, is the largest of its kind, Westmaas said.

If you’re still trying to quit smoking, Dr. Davis suggested four steps:

  1. Understand what your trigger is for lighting up. For many people, it’s after a meal. Try to replace your smoking habit with something positive, like going for a walk or chewing a piece of gum.
  2. Set a quit date. That will make your plan more real and help you stick with it, even in though the road ahead is full of challenges.
  3. Consider if you need additional help from family and friends. It’s hard to quit if people close to you continue to smoke, so try and plan together.
  4. Talk to your doctor about if you might benefit from medical therapies that can help with cravings. That can include a prescription or over-the-counter nicotine replacement like a patch, gum or inhaler.


Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.