FRIDAY, Feb. 8, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer patients are already fighting a tough battle, so quitting smoking while doing so is a real challenge.
Now, research from Northwestern University in Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania shows that a combo of counseling and extended use of an anti-smoking medication can boost their odds for success.
One lung cancer patient understands how tough quitting smoking can be.
"When someone tells you that you have cancer, you get scared," said Chicago resident Billie Green, 70, a smoker for 50 years. She said the stress of her diagnosis made the prospect of quitting even tougher.
"Smoking used to be my best friend when I was upset, after I ate," she explained in a Northwestern news release.
"But I knew it didn't make any sense to keep smoking if I'm going in for treatment all the time," Green said.
But as the research team related, even though quitting smoking can boost the effectiveness of cancer treatment, nearly half of cancer patients keep smoking after their diagnosis.
Quitting smoking is possible, however, and medications like varenicline (Chantix) can help. But in their new study of 207 cancer patients, the researchers found that people were more likely to stop smoking and less likely to resume only if they had counseling and also took the anti-smoking medication varenicline for 24 weeks. It's usually prescribed for 12 weeks.
The higher success of quitting was true only for the 43 percent of patients who took varenicline as directed for the full 24 weeks, the investigators said. The 57 percent who didn't adhere to that schedule showed no better success than if they hadn't taken the medication at all.
Forty percent of the study participants had current cancer; the rest had had cancer in the past five years. The types of cancer included breast, skin and lung cancer.
"With the stress cancer patients are under, they tend to be at higher risk of relapsing for a longer period of time. So we thought providing treatment for longer would be more effective," said study senior author Brian Hitsman. He's an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.
All of the study participants had concurrent behavioral therapy. Though this therapy wasn't a focus of the research, Hitsman said that it needs to be studied more closely because it can be a powerful tool to help cancer patients quit smoking.
"You can imagine how someone going through a severe or significant disease and treatment process could benefit from the support we provided in this study," he said in a university news release.
For her part, Green said her daughter told her of Northwestern's quit-smoking study and asked her to enroll. Although Green hasn't quit smoking altogether, she now smokes just one cigarette every two days, versus the pack-a-day habit she had before.
According to Green, the effort to quit and the education she received in the study helped her better understand how smoking was harming her.
The study, published recently in the journal Psycho-Oncology, is only the second to examine the use of varenicline in cancer patients, and the first to examine its safety when used for 24 weeks alongside counseling.
Study first author Robert Schnoll added, "We hear from cancer patients and oncologists that varenicline may cause serious side effects or that managing the stress of the disease makes addressing tobacco use among patients inappropriate."
But this study shows that varenicline is effective for cancer patients, doesn't increase their risk, and benefits those who take it as prescribed, he said in the news release. Schnoll is associate director for population science at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
"We need now to focus on how we can get more patients who smoke to use the medication and use it sufficiently if we are to see broader population-level gains," he added.
The trial was funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
The American Cancer Society offers advice on quitting smoking.