Smoking Cessation "Not a One-and-Done" Event for Patients With Cancer


For patients with cancer, smoking cessation should include counseling and pharmacology. Encouragement throughout, especially if a patient relapses is important.

Smoking Cessation Not a One-and-Done Event for Patients With Cancer

Smoking Cessation Not a One-and-Done Event for Patients With Cancer

Helping patients with cancer to stop smoking has been a mission Paul M. Cinciripini, PhD, has spent the better part of his life working on. With more than 480,000 deaths in the US each year attributable to smoking, he shared with clinicians attending the recent 22nd Annual Conference of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) some good news about smoking cessation approaches to help reduce that number.

Cinciripini, is a professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and directs its Tobacco Treatment Program. The beneficial effects of cessation go beyond reducing mortality, he said, and include lowering depression, anxiety, and stress, along with improved positive mood and qualityof life (QOL).

Smoking During Cancer Treatment

In the cancer population, these outcomes—both the dangers of smoking and the benefits of cessation—are magnified. Smoking during cancer treatment is associated with an increased risk of recurrence, greater symptom burden, and reduced survival.

Response to radiotherapy is diminished in smokers, and they have an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, infection, and poor wound healing. Smokers also experience worsened toxicities and immune impairment while undergoing chemotherapy, although the efficacy of the treatment is diminished.

In 1 study, patients who quit smoking had a 78% overall survival rate 2 years after radiotherapy, compared with 69% among those who continued to smoke. From a QOL perspective, patients who quit smoking report easier breathing and a boost in energy. Clearly, Cinciripini said, there is a “need for intervention” among this population.

Smoking Cessation Interventions: What Works

The most effective interventions, he explained, involve a combination of counseling and medications. Recommended first-line medications include varenicline, bupropion, and nicotine-replacement therapies like patches or gum.

Cinciripini cited a large study called the EAGLES trial that found varenicline to be more effective than bupropion, nicotine patch, or placebo in patients with and without psychiatric disorders. The occurrence of severe neuropsychiatric events during treatment, including suicide, was similar across all the tested therapies. Cinciripini advised clinicians to think about the patient’s psychiatric background and history when prescribing these treatments, and to “be on the lookout for any untoward changes in their psychiatric profile.”

He then highlighted several studies demonstrating better cessation rates associated with higher intensity counseling, defined as more than 4 sessions lasting 30 to 300 minutes, compared with minimal intensity counseling. Although this more intense treatment costs more, Cinciripini explained that its increased effectiveness makes it more cost effective. He also cited research that found a combination of intense counseling plus the introduction of nicotine replacement therapy before quitting was more effective at 16 and 26 weeks than either intervention alone.

After presenting this literature, Cinciripini discussed the NCCN clinical guidelines for smoking cessation in oncology. First, clinicians must assess patients’ nicotine dependency, history of quit attempts, and readiness to quit. If a patient is ready to quit, the clinician should involve him or her in establishing a plan and setting a quit date. If he or she is not ready, the clinician can help address concerns and suggest pharmacotherapy to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked per day. The goal of this reduction is eventually quitting, Cinciripini emphasized, not just harm reduction.

The primary recommended therapies are a combination of behavioral therapy and either nicotine replacement therapies or varenicline. If a patient succeeds in quitting, the guidelines recommend “motivational strategies for continued abstinence.” If a patient relapses, clinicians can switch the type of therapy, but must be sure to maintain consistent engagement with the patient.

Smoking cessation is “not a one and done” event, Cinciripini emphasized, and requires consistent contact and follow-up by the clinician. “If they quit, great, stay engaged. If they don’t, great, stay engaged,” he summarized.

What About E-Cigarettes?

When the audience was invited to ask questions, an attendee asked Cinciripini his opinion on e-cigarettes as a form of risk mitigation, though he’d previously said he was focusing on complete cessation, not harm reduction.

“I knew I was going to get that question,” Cinciripini sighed jokingly. “The answer is it depends.” Although there aren’t enough data to establish effectiveness and long-term safety for the devices, he said, the reduction in carcinogens makes it preferable to cigarettes and can provide an opening for patients to transition towards eliminating nicotine.

Cinciripini said he would not rule out e-cigarettes as a potential tool if researchers had more data, but reiterated he was “most comfortable talking about valid nicotine therapies” as a means for cessation.

Christina Mattina is a writer and assistant editor for the American Journal of Managed Care. Read more at

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