Lung-cancer patients who quit smoking survive longer

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Paul Yeung / Reuters

There’s no question that quitting smoking benefits your health, not least by reducing your risk of developing lung cancer. But what if you’re a smoker who has already been diagnosed with lung cancer — will quitting give you any advantage in fighting the disease?

A study by scientists in Birmingham, England, finds that, yes, even after lung cancer has developed, kicking the habit may slow down the progression of lung tumors. The scientists, who published their results in the British Medical Journal, analyzed 10 studies of lung cancer diagnosed at the early stages, and modeled five-year survival rates based on whether the patients quit smoking or continued lighting up. The estimates showed that 33% of those who continued to smoke could expect to survive for five years after their diagnosis, while 70% — more than double — of those who quit could count on being alive after the same time period.

This is the first study to suggest that cigarette smoking has an impact on the progression of lung cancer that has already taken root. At least for early stage lung cancers, which have a far better prognosis than later stages of the disease (at advanced stages, only 7% of patients can expect to survive another five years), smoking cessation may be worth the effort of withdrawal. A minority of lung cancers, about 20%, are diagnosed at an early stage, however, and fewer than a third of lung cancer patients survive a year after diagnosis.

The authors stress that the findings are preliminary, and should be confirmed in more rigorous trials, but they support the idea that it’s never too late to quit. The American Cancer Society says that people who kick the habit before age 50 can halve their risk of dying in the next 15 years compared with those who continue to light up.

And as this British study points out, the health benefits are not limited to some potential future damage that smoking may cause — quitting may slow the progression of smoking-related disease. It also significantly reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke; because nicotine can stiffen blood vessels, people who smoke are twice as likely to die of heart attack as nonsmokers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that men who smoke lose an average of 13.2 years of life, while women smokers lose an average of 14.5 years. — By Alice Park