Study supports urging smoking-cessation treatment to patients in cancer care

National study shows cancer centers help patients stop smoking

A nationwide team studied 44,000 smokers at 28 cancer centers. The researchers learned that if they could get those patients into evidence-based therapy — such as nicotine replacement, counseling or both — they could help nearly one in five kick the habit and, in doing so, improve the effectiveness of the cancer therapy and boost the patients’ cancer survival rates. (Photo: Getty Images)

New research involving 28 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Cancer Centers, including Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, indicates it’s both possible and helpful to get cancer patients who smoke into evidence-based tobacco-treatment programs as part of their cancer care.

Studying data involving almost 700,000 patients at the 28 NCI-Designated Cancer Centers, a team of researchers found that it’s beneficial to integrate tobacco treatment into cancer centers’ routine cancer care.

The findings are published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“We know that people are more likely to quit smoking when they receive treatment, and we know that quitting smoking improves survival and makes cancer treatment more effective; what we didn’t know until now was whether smoking-cessation treatment could be delivered to these patients in cancer centers successfully,” said senior author Li-Shiun Chen, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

After screening cancer patients to learn whether they smoke, the researchers identified more than 44,000 smokers at the cancer centers. The researchers discovered that if they could get those patients into evidence-based therapy — such as nicotine replacement, counseling or both — they could help nearly one in five kick the habit and, in doing so, improve the effectiveness of their cancer therapy and boost the patients’ cancer survival rates. Quitting smoking doubles the survival rate for cancer patients and lowers the risk of cancer recurrence, no matter the stage of the cancer.

“Patients receiving tobacco treatment were two to three times more successful in quitting than untreated people, and cancer treatment was significantly more likely to succeed in those who quit smoking,” said first author Sarah D. Hohl, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A national effort called the Cancer Center Cessation Initiative was established as part of the Cancer Moonshot project. In this new study, researchers successfully screened 96% of cancer patients at the 28 NCI-Designated centers participating in the initiative.

“This is the first time that we have gathered this kind of evidence from so many cancer centers,” said Chen. “We didn’t attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all treatment program but instead encouraged centers to do what they thought would work best to get their patients into treatment for smoking.”


There’s still a long way to go. Overall, only about one in seven (15%) patients ends up receiving treatment to curtail tobacco use. But among those who did, almost one in five (18%) succeeded in quitting or severely curtailing tobacco use.

“Tobacco has been kind of a back burner issue at many cancer centers, where the main focus is on treating the consequences of cancer, but we know that quitting smoking helps, regardless of the cancer’s stage, and we believe there are low-burden, cost-effective strategies to help patients do that,” Chen said.

She recently led a single-center effort at Siteman Cancer Center in which researchers used a point-of-care model and electronic health records to identify smokers and then offered them smoking-cessation interventions during regular appointments to receive cancer treatment. That effort increased the percentage of patients receiving smoking-cessation treatment at Siteman from about 2% at the start of the study to nearly 30%. Meanwhile, the percentage of cancer patients at Siteman who quit successfully — meaning they went at least six months without smoking — increased from about 12% to more than 17%.

Chen said the Siteman program demonstrated it was possible for the point-of-care model to help cancer patients quit smoking. She said the goal of this larger, national study was to allow cancer centers to design strategies that work best for their particular patient populations – urban or rural cancer patients, for example, or patients from specific racial or ethnic groups — to see whether specific approaches might work better at one cancer center than another. Chen said it’s unlikely a cookie-cutter approach to smoking cessation would work at each of the nation’s dozens of centers.

“We’re poring over data from the individual centers in this study to look at exactly what they’ve done and to determine what seems to work and what seems not to work,” Chen explained. “We want to identify strategies that can be tailored to specific cancer centers to best help their specific patient populations.”

Hohl SD, et al. Integrating tobacco treatment into oncology care: reach and effectiveness of evidence-based tobacco treatment across NCI-designated cancer centers. Journal of Clinical Oncology, Dec. 6, 2022.

This work is supported by the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Grant numbers include P30 CA008748-52S1, P30 CA091842-19S5, P50 CA2443, P30 CA033572, P30 CA03572-37S5, P30 CA044579, UL1T R003015, KL2 TR003016, P30 CA016520-41S4, P30 CA016359-38S5, UL1 TR001427, P01 CA180945, R35 CA197573, P30 CA138313-09S4, P30 CA016086-43S1, P30 CA16086-44S5, P30 CA0157404-47, P30CA015705-45S9, P30 CA023108-43 and P30 CA056036.

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,700 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the fourth largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 54% in the last five years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,790 faculty physicians practicing at over 60 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Originally published by the School of Medicine