Quit smoking: Dana-Farber expert offers tips for kicking the habit


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There is never a bad time to stop smoking, but if you want to take the step toward a healthier life, there's no time like the present.

"The most important thing you can do to avoid lung cancer is to never start smoking. And if you do smoke, it's never too late to quit," explains Bruce E. Johnson, MD, director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which provides treatment for lung cancer patients.

According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the United States. Smoking accounts for more than 440,000 deaths, or nearly one in every five deaths, each year. It also causes more than 85 percent of all lung cancers and increases the risk for many other types of cancers.

Why quit smoking?

Quitting smoking lowers a person's risk of lung cancer, as well as other cancers, heart attack, stroke, and chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

People can lower their risk of a heart attack or stroke within a few weeks of quitting. Johnson says those who quit smoking and remain a non-smoker for five to 10 years can cut their risk of cancer in half compared to a person who keeps smoking. Even smokers who quit after age 50 can reduce their risk of dying early.

Lung cancer risk factors

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in the U.S., and causes more deaths each year than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined. In 2010, it's estimated that more than 157,000 people will die from lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Although smoking is by far the largest risk factor for lung cancer, non-smokers can also develop the disease.

"Twenty percent of women and 10 percent of men who develop lung cancer never smoked," explains Johnson.

Environmental risk factors, such as second-hand smoke, radon, or certain industrial chemicals, can increase a person's risk of developing lung cancer.

Lung cancer warning signs

Lung cancer shares many symptoms with other diseases like a cold or the flu. So Johnson encourages people, especially smokers, to see their physicians if they experience any of the following:

  • A cough that will not go away over several weeks. Smokers may see a change in the frequency or severity of an already persistent cough;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Chest, shoulder, or back pain that doesn't go away and is made worse by deep breathing;
  • Increased wheezing;
  • Bloody coughs: "If someone coughs up blood, they should seek medical attention right away," stresses Johnson.

Ready to quit smoking

"When someone is ready to quit, the first things we encourage them to do are pick a date and seek the help of family, friends or professional counselors," says Johnson.

Other tips

Choose a method, such as

  • Changing out cigarettes for nicotine replacement products
  • Gradual withdrawal
  • Anti-depressants

Avoid triggers

  • Get rid of cigarettes, lighters, matches, and ashtrays
  • Go for a walk; exercise can decrease cravings

Follow the Four "Ds"

  • Deep breaths
  • Drink lots of water
  • Do something to avoid focusing on cigarette cravings
  • Delay reaching for a cigarette - the urge will pass

On average it takes at least three attempts to quit and stay tobacco-free. So for people who have previously tried to quit and went back to smoking, it's important to pick another date and try again. Johnson reminds them, "It's never too late to quit."

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