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Quitting for Good: The Great American Smokeout

Conrad J. Stachelek

Conrad J. Stachelek, MD, PhD

The long-term effects of smoking can cause much more damage to multiple organs and bodily functions, in addition to lung cancer, which is often associated with this dangerous habit. The Great American Smokeout, held on the third Thursday of November, is the largest social engineering campaign that encourages smokers to quit and provides them with the resources and education about the effects of smoking. Conrad J. Stachelek, M.D., Ph.D., Clinical Director of Radiation Oncology at the Regional Cancer Center,illustrates the dangers of smoking, the long-term effects it carries, and the importance of this campaign and quitting for good.

“Eighty-five percent of lung cancer diagnoses result from a smoking addiction,” says Dr. Stachelek. It also increases the risk of other cancers, risk of stroke, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD. Blood vessels can become extremely narrow which leads to further complications and problems. In this case, many surgeons will have a difficult time operating on patients that are smokers, as the smaller blood vessels can create a difficult healing process.

About 15-20 percent of lung cancer cases may not be associated with smoking, but there are many other causes such as radon gas and secondhand smoke. Although rare, uranium miners may have an increased risk of lung cancer, as they are working directly with radioactive decay.

“There are a lot of carcinogens in tobacco smoke which can absorb into the bloodstream and directly into the lungs. Those carcinogens can cause genetic mutations,” explains Dr. Stachelek. “Once you accumulate enough mutations, the risk of developing abnormal cell growth, which is actually cancer, goes up enormously.”

In many cases, the symptoms of lung cancer are silent. It often depends on where the mass is located on the lung, as some patients have been seen with masses the size of golf balls, but are affected by very minimal symptoms. Coughing and shortness of breath may occur at times, if the mass is blocking the airway.

Treatment typically involves surgery for early stage lung cancer, but there are some patients that may not be good candidates, depending on age. However, stereotactic radiation is available, which specifically treats the lesion with radiation therapy. In more advanced stages of lung cancer, treatment may involve a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy or just chemotherapy alone.

“Lung deaths per year are greater than colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer combined. It’s a large number,” states Dr. Stachelek. “But even if you ignore that, smoking still does damage in many other ways such as small vessel disease, diabetes, increase rates of stroke, and cardiac disease.” There are multiple reasons to quit, besides lung cancer, even though this is certainly one of the biggest reasons, as the majority of lung cancers are caused by smoking.

Non-smoker’s lungs should resemble a pinkish color, with various sacs throughout. A smoker’s lungs are typically very dark due to all the soot that collects within them. Smoking also damages and kills the cells that contain cilia, or tendrils, which assist in clearing out the airway.

“Some people say ‘Well I’ve been smoking so long it doesn’t make sense to stop,’” says Dr. Stachelek, “but there are reasons to quit.” Quitting helps in terms of cardiac function and can even improve some lung function, even though the lungs won’t fully regain due to previous damage done from smoking. The risk for lung cancer may remain elevated for quite some time even after quitting, but the risk does indeed decrease with time.

Nicotine patches are the easiest solutions to aid those who wish to quit smoking, as these can be purchased directly over the counter. There are many other options available, and if nicotine patches and nicotine gum don’t seem to be the solution, the best option is to speak with your family doctor to come up with the best plan that will work for you. Medications are available to subdue to urge to smoke, but those who wish to quit, must really have a strong desire to quit the habit for good.