By Dr. Graham A. Colditz,
Siteman Cancer Center
Though it doesn’t often make headlines these days, it’s hard to overstate how important quitting smoking is to health—and in ways many people may not be aware of.
Smoking impacts almost every organ in the body to some degree. It’s the main cause of lung cancer, of course, but it also causes 14 other cancers, including breast, colon, cervical and kidney cancers. It also greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Overall, smokers die a decade or more earlier than those who’ve never smoked.
Smoking also raises the risk of conditions that may seem less serious but that can have a major influence on quality of life and daily living. This includes rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts and macular degeneration, which is a common cause of severe vision loss in people over 50. If that’s not enough, smoking is also linked to tooth loss, slower healing of cuts, trouble getting pregnant and erectile dysfunction.
The good news is, quitting smoking lowers the risk of nearly all of these diseases and conditions—and over time, the risk of some drop to near that of a person who’s never smoked.
But you don’t need to wait years to see benefits. Minutes after your last cigarette, your heart rate drops. Then, in the next several days, carbon monoxide levels in your blood fall to that of nonsmokers. And within months, coughing and shortness of breath improve.
While finding reasons to quit isn’t hard, actually doing it can be, as many smokers who’ve tried to quit know. The nicotine in tobacco is addictive, and that makes smoking different than many other behaviors we may try to change.
At the same time, quitting is far from impossible. Thousands of smokers stop for good every day. And getting help quitting can double, and maybe even triple, the chances of success.
But only a minority of smokers actually take full advantage of approaches we know help with quitting.
For most smokers, this means talking to a healthcare professional about a combination of medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and behavioral support. Medications can include nicotine replacement therapy, like patches or gum, or other drugs, like bupropion. Among its other benefits, behavioral support can help smokers learn to work through barriers to staying smoke-free, like cravings and triggers that can lead to urges to smoke. Support can come in many different forms, including in-person or virtual classes as well as text-messaging and other programs.
If you’re a smoker who wants to quit, you’re in good company. Nearly 70% of smokers feel the same way, and more than half have tried to quit in the past year.
So, if you’re ready to quit—or even ready to just start thinking about quitting—November can be a great month to do it. The American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout is Nov. 18. The annual event gives smokers a target date to quit, while highlighting resources for becoming and staying tobacco-free.
Why not celebrate these last couple months of the year by doing something really wonderful for your health? Yes, quitting is hard. But you can do it.
It’s your health. Take control.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool YourDiseaseRisk.com. The Phelps Health Delbert Day Cancer Institute is part of the Siteman Cancer Network.