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Initiative to help cancer patients quit smoking

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Washington University School of Medicine
A new program funded by the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Moonshot initiative will help patients at Siteman Cancer Center... A new program funded by the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Moonshot initiative will help patients at Siteman Cancer Center quit smoking. The national smoking rate is about 15 percent, but some 23 percent of Siteman patients smoke. (Getty Images)

A new program funded by the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Moonshot initiative will help patients at Siteman Cancer Center quit smoking. The national smoking rate is about 15 percent, but some 23 percent of Siteman patients smoke. (Getty Images)

Smoking rates in the United States have decreased dramatically in recent decades, but many smokers diagnosed with cancer continue to light up. To make smoking cessation a major focus at cancer centers, including Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding the Cancer Center Cessation Initiative.

Compared with a national smoking rate of about 15 percent, the rate is 16 percent in Illinois and 22 percent in Missouri.

“But among the patients at Siteman, the smoking rate is 23 percent,” said Li-Shiun Chen, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. “The idea of this project is to treat not only cancer — which often is a consequence of smoking — but also to help smokers quit to improve survival and help prevent future cancers.”

The project at the Siteman — supported with a $480,000 grant — is one of 22 funded by the NCI’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.

Some cancer patients may think the damage already is done, or they may feel overwhelmed with their diagnoses and the treatments they receive.

Chen, a nicotine-addiction specialist, said continuing to smoke following a cancer diagnosis can interfere with treatment and make a patient’s prognosis worse. Quitting, meanwhile, can improve patients’ symptoms and their ability to recover more quickly from treatment, improving their long-term outcomes.

“Under this new program, when patients see oncologists or surgeons, they will get advice about quitting, referrals to telephone quit lines or to Smokefree.gov, an NCI program that involves text messages and a smoking-cessation app,” Chen said. “They also will have the opportunity to receive prescriptions for medications to help them quit.”

Smoking contributes to about 30 percent of all cancer deaths. And under the new program, Chen said people who receive care at Siteman, including those who come for cancer screenings, will be asked if they smoke and have the opportunity to receive counseling or medication.

“Our goal is to eliminate tobacco, and we want to help even our sickest cancer patients take that step,” Chen said.

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