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Experts say quitting smoking helps improves health outcomes after a lung cancer diagnosis and improves a person’s overall health. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that a smoker who is diagnosed with lung cancer can significantly improve their health outcomes by stopping smoking.
  • They note that quitting smoking can also improve a person’s overall health and reduce the risk of heart attacks or stroke.
  • They add that quitting smoking is a difficult thing to accomplish even after a cancer diagnosis.

A study published July 26 suggests that quitting smoking after receiving a lung cancer diagnosis can significantly improve your likelihood of surviving cancer and other complications down the line.

Quitting smoking may sound like an obvious decision in these circumstances, but as many as 50 percent of smoking cancer survivors reportedly continue to light up.

“Several studies have found a fatalistic attitude among some smokers,” explained Dr. Matthew Triplette, MPH, medical director of the lung cancer screening program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA). “They know smoking is bad for them but continue smoking with the attitude that ‘what will happen will happen.’ When they develop cancer, sometimes they think the worst has happened and that any further smoking is unlikely to harm them.”

But though it might be intuitive that quitting smoking while trying to get free of lung cancer makes sense, there has not been much direct research on that front – something these researchers aim to change.

In the new study, which looked at 500 people with early stage non-small cell lung cancer, researchers reported that those who quit smoking after diagnosis lived longer in general and longer cancer-free than people who received treatment but did not quit.

All told, people who quit smoking lived 6.6 years on average versus 4.8 years among smokers. They also lived longer cancer-free (5.7 versus 3.9 years) and lived longer before dying from lung cancer, at 7.9 years versus 6 years.

That makes sense, said Dr. Andrew Brown, a medical oncologist at The Cancer Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey.

“Continued smoking during cancer treatment can put you at higher risk for infections like bronchitis and pneumonia,” Brown told Healthline. “In a person going through cancer treatment, even a small infection can become very serious quickly. Quitting smoking almost instantaneously lowers your risk of pulmonary infection and each day and week and month the risk is lower.

“Also, stopping smoking makes it safer to perform surgery and/or tolerate radiation therapy if that is part of the treatment plan” he added.

It’s not just that quitting smoking improves your ability to survive lung cancer, it can also have a positive impact on your overall health, experts said.

“Non-smokers, or those who quit, are less likely to develop or have complications from other medical problems like heart disease and strokes,” Triplette said. “Among smokers, recurrence of lung cancer or a second lung cancer is common, so quitting smoking reduces the likelihood of developing a second lung cancer or another type of cancer.”

But the main reason people don’t quit smoking is likely the same reason they never quit smoking before a cancer diagnosis: It’s tough to quit.

“Nicotine is a very hard addiction to beat, comparable to heroin, cocaine, and other highly addictive substances,” said Dr. Maher Karam-Hage, the medical director of the Tobacco Treatment Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Osita Onugha, a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, agreed.

“Smoking is an addiction, and people usually use vices like smoking, alcohol use, or eating to deal with stress,” Onugha told Healthline. “Getting a diagnosis of lung cancer not only causes stress but can lead to anxiety. So, it can be even harder to quit smoking after a lung cancer diagnosis.”

But that’s not a reason to despair.

Start with tackling your anxiety without cigarettes, Dr. Robert Y. Goldberg, a pulmonologist with Providence Mission Hospital in Southern California, suggests.

“If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, daily breathing exercises can help to reduce stress and anxiety as you go through treatment,” Goldberg told Healthline. “Make sure to eat healthy and nutritious meals, along with physical activity to help to reduce fatigue, improve your overall mood and manage your weight, can also help you to best manage your cancer journey.”

“It’s important to recognize that you aren’t alone. Close friends and family can be a great support system,” he added. “But don’t discount cancer support groups. Joining a group is a good way to connect with others who understand what you are going through. Plus, it is a safe place where you can voice any fears or concerns you might have during treatment.”