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When a doctor refers a patient to BC Cancer for a lump in their chest, the first person they may see, if they live in British Columbia, is Dr. Myers.
Dr. Myers performs lung biopsies and helps to stage cancers of the lung, head and neck. She also provides smoking cessation counselling and leads the development of a program that will screen and assist all BC Cancer patients that use tobacco.
But if a person already has cancer, what benefit is it to them to quit? Why go through the hardship?
Dr. Myers: Simply put, it's one of the most important things to do at the time of a cancer diagnosis. By stopping smoking at the time of a cancer diagnosis, patients will live longer (improve mortality), respond better to therapies, and have less complications. They will also reduce the risk of their cancer coming back or getting a second cancer.
How many BC Cancer patients smoke?
We know that approximately 15-25 per cent of people with a cancer diagnosis attending BC Cancer currently use tobacco. This varies across the six different sites around the province. BC Cancer – Vancouver has the lowest, and BC Cancer – Prince George has the highest rates.
The BC Cancer Smoking Cessation Program aims to screen (or ask) every person who comes to BC Cancer if they use tobacco and provide personalized advice on how quitting would benefit their treatment. We also offer to send a referral to provincial cessation services such as QuitNow or Talk Tobacco on their behalf, and educate them on all the resources available in British Columbia, such as three months of free nicotine replacement therapy per year. We aim to arm patients with the knowledge and tools to quit!
How does smoking interfere with treatment or make cancer worse?
Continuing to use tobacco while receiving radiation to the chest area increases your risk of complications by 20 per cent. This occurs because of less oxygen in the tissue, which is a result of using tobacco.
There are also studies showing that for certain targeted therapies, only 50 per cent of the drug is found circulating in the blood of persons who use tobacco versus those who do not. Therefore, if a person continues to use tobacco while on this medication, they may not be receiving an effective dose.
What resources are available to patients that are smokers?
- Nicotine replacement therapies (NRT), including the patch, inhaler, gum and lozenges, are all free of charge with your care card in B.C. You can get these nicotine replacements from your local pharmacist and do not require a prescription from a doctor to access them.
- QuitNow is a telephone counselling line with "professional quit coaches" that provide counselling services in more than 150 languages. People can also receive motivational text messages, or a combination of texts and phone calls. We know that it's effective: smokers have a two times greater chance of quitting with a telephone quit line.
What should an oncologist tell a patient who is a smoker?
The best thing that they can do for themselves is stop smoking. It is an important part of their treatment. We understand that it's a difficult journey to undertake and at a very difficult juncture in their lives, but we have the tools and the resources to help them.
We recently launched a NRT pilot program at BC Cancer – Prince George, offering all current tobacco users a cessation kit including nicotine replacement patches and Nicorette gum at the first visit. Interested patients will leave the clinic with a patch on their arm, and a supply of patches and gum to bridge them to attending a pharmacy to receive a three-month supply of free patches.