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Steps to Help You Stop Smoking for Good

by Thomas H. Brandon, PhD, and Vani Nath Simmons, PhD

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After receiving a cancer diagnosis, some people feel that there is no longer any point to quitting smoking, that it is now too late. However, it is never too late to quit smoking. Indeed, quitting smoking can be especially important for cancer survivors.

There are both immediate and longterm benefits for survivors who quit smoking as soon as possible and stay smoke-free. Among the immediate benefits are fewer treatment-related side effects, fewer treatment complications, better treatment outcomes, improved post-surgical wound healing, and lower risk of infection. Cancer survivors who quit smoking are happier, report less pain, and enjoy a better quality of life. Long-term benefits for cancer survivors include better survival rates, lower risk of cancer recurring, and lower risk of developing a new cancer.

The first step to quitting smoking is setting a quit date as soon as possible. It is best to quit smoking before cancer treatment begins, but it is never too late.

The first step to quitting smoking is
setting a quit date as soon as possible.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Vani Simmons

When you initially quit, your first challenge will be to deal with nicotine withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating, and tobacco cravings. Fortunately, several medications are available that are very effective at reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. These include nicotine replacement products, such as gums, patches, lozenges, nasal sprays, and inhalers, which allow you to taper off nicotine more gradually, as well as a couple of non-nicotine medications, such as bupropion (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®). Your healthcare provider can help you decide which medication is best for you.

It is also important to learn ways to cope with the inevitable tobacco cravings. Successful quitters learn to distract themselves until the urge to smoke passes. For example, they may take a drink of water, go for a walk, or call a friend. It can also be helpful to think about something else when you have an urge to smoke. You can reflect on why you want to quit, tell yourself that smoking is not an option, or remind yourself that the urge will pass in a few minutes. Studies show that smokers who use both medication and urge-coping skills are the most successful at achieving a smokefree lifestyle.

Smokers often use cigarettes as a way to cope with stress and negative moods, such as sadness, anxiety, anger, or boredom. Successful quitters find other ways to deal with stress and unpleasant emotions, such as deep breathing; engaging in physical activities, like walking or gardening; and seeking support from friends and family. Because cancer diagnosis and treatment often cause great stress and anxiety, it is especially helpful for survivors to find coping mechanisms that are safer alternatives to smoking.

Once you quit smoking, your goal is to do whatever you can to avoid having a cigarette. However, if you do have one, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, get rid of any other cigarettes you have, try to learn from the experience, and recommit to quitting right away.

Although cancer can be a time when many things may feel out of your control, you can take control of your health by quitting smoking.

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Dr. Thomas Brandon is director of the Tobacco Research & Intervention Program (TRIP) and chair of the department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. For the past 30 years, he has been conducting research on tobacco smoking and developing new ways to help smokers quit for good. Dr. Vani Simmons is a faculty member at TRIP and the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on smoking interventions for people with cancer.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.