By Dr. Elizabeth T.H. Fontham, LSUHSC School of Public Health, Founding Dean and Professor Emeritus
It will not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that smoking is bad for health – in big important ways and in some less life-threatening, but undesirable ways. As someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, I sincerely hope that if you are a nonsmoker your commitment to not smoke will be reinforced by what you read here and if you are a smoker that you will seize the opportunity to prevent adverse health effects by battling and beating cigarette addiction.
Let’s start with some facts that impact our appearance and may, as a result, decrease our quality of life and then discuss the major health issues, those associated with premature mortality. Smoking speeds up the aging process. Cigarette smoke destroys key elements that are essential to a youthful appearance, such as collagen and elastin. Wrinkles develop many years sooner in smokers than in nonsmokers. Teeth, hair and nails are likewise impacted with yellowing and dulling, all visible signs of smoking. Smoking even alters one’s speech. These are aesthetic outcomes, but undesirable to most since they can be prevented by avoiding tobacco.
Smoking negatively impacts healing. Even a single cigarette restricts oxygen and blood flow throughout the body. Very importantly for those who are post-surgery, wound healing is impaired. Oxygen is the basis for wound healing, without it damaged cells cannot be repaired and replaced.
Much is known about the major diseases caused by cancer. The greater the number of cigarettes smoked and the longer the number of years that a person smokes, the greater the risk of developing and dying from many cancers, heart disease, stroke, and other major diseases.
We now know that tobacco smoking causes cancers of the lung, oral cavity, the nasal cavity and sinuses, larynx and naso-pharynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, colon and rectum, liver, kidney and ureter, bladder, cervix, ovary and myeloid leukemia. We also know that tobacco smoking increases risk of developing breast cancer.
For breast cancer survivors, recent studies are of particular interest. A 2014 study combined data from several studies and included about 10,000 breast cancer survivors. That large study found that smoking increased the risk of recurrence of breast cancer, the risk of death from breast cancer and the overall mortality (deaths from any cause). The flip-side of this translates into a positive finding for not smoking. This study found that the increased risk associated with smoking by breast cancer survivors was confined to heavier or long-term smokers. Health care providers should make every effort to motivate and assist breast cancer survivors to quit and thereby minimize the number of years and amount smoked. And breast cancer survivors who smoke and would like to quit should be empowered to ask for whatever assistance is helpful in achieving ex-smoker status.