Smoking and Throat Cancer
- Sue Mountain began smoking at the age of 11. She has since battled throat cancer three times, but it wasn’t until after her most recent diagnosis that she decided to quit smoking altogether.
- Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. It is an HPV-related cancer. One of the the easiest ways to reduce the risk of your children developing the disease is to make sure they get the HPV vaccine, particularly between ages 9 and 12.
- Smoking is linked to multiple kinds of cancers, including throat cancer, and it can also effect cancer survival. One of our experts says that, “we know that there is a causal relationship between smoking and both incidents of cancer and the chance of dying from cancer.”
For Mountain, smoking became an addiction. She would use her dinner money to buy five cigarettes instead of having lunch and would sometimes even take one of her mother’s and hope she didn’t notice.Read More
Her peers and her family smoked, so Mountain didn’t see anything wrong with it. And it wasn’t until the 90s that she started considering the health risks. She even switched to menthol cigarettes at that point, thinking they were healthier, when, in reality, they are not.
Then, her father developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which left him unable to walk on his own and function without a breathing apparatus.
“I knew I needed to stop but I just couldn’t,” Mountain wrote. “[My father] was a businessman and to see such a strong man deteriorate like that, it was horrendous.”
Then, in 2010, her own health battles began after noticing a persistent dry throat and lost voice. These conditions continued, and she finally went to get her symptoms checked out in 2012.
“I honestly didn’t think it was anything serious, so when I got diagnosed with early-stage laryngeal cancer, I was devastated,” she wrote.
That was when she underwent laser treatment and gave up smoking for the first time. But about three months after she received the “all clear” from her doctors, Mountain picked up smoking again.
“I just needed something to help me get through a tough time,” she wrote. “I smoked on the sly, hiding it from my three daughters as I knew they would be really upset that I had started again. Unfortunately, they found out and I promised to stop, but I didn’t.”
Since she had already overcame her first battle with the disease, she thought it wouldn’t happen again. Unfortunately, she was mistaken. She kept having issues with her throat and voice again and discovered that her cancer had returned in 2015. She then underwent more laser treatment and got another all clear but that still didn’t get her to stop smoking.
“It had taken control of me; it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and it got to the stage where I didn’t see the point in stopping,” she wrote. “The only time I did was for the two days before my consultant appointments. As soon as I’d seen him, I would start smoking again.”
She was hit with a third diagnosis in 2017, but it was at stage 2 and more aggressive this time. But, eventually, she found the strength to really quit after countless attempts.
“In the end, it was my best friend who brought it home that if I didn’t end my addiction, I might not be around for my daughters or my grandchildren,” Mountain wrote. “She got through to me and I made the decision there and then.”
She quit right before starting five days of radiotherapy for four weeks, but her recovery wasn’t easy and her voice will never be the same.
“I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, I had a tube down my throat for three months. I was so weak all I could do was lie on the sofa,” she wrote. “I now talk a different way. My speech has changed – my vocal cords are all scarred now. This has become normal for me.”
Thankfully, she’s cancer-free today, but she still thinks about all the harm that smoking has caused her family and her.
“Looking back, I wish I had never started and I especially feel guilty about smoking in front of my children and the worry they went through with my illness,” she wrote. “Even after cancer, I am one of the lucky ones to still be here. But I know the heartbreak that smoking can cause. I don’t want my grandchildren to go through what I went through and I think that view is shared by many people who have smoked.”
Her advice to smokers is simple: “Stop.”
“Don’t wait until you get to the point where you can’t walk up the stairs anymore, or get told you have cancer,” she wrote. “Get help. Use quitting aids. Ask your stop smoking service or doctor. You can absolutely do it.”
Understanding Throat Cancer
Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancerous cells begin in the throat, voice box or tonsils. Some of the main risk factors for this disease include smoking, drinking alcohol, a diet lacking in fruits or vegetables, acid reflux disease and the human papillomavirus (HPV). So, one of the easiest ways to decrease your chances of developing the disease is to get the HPV vaccine
The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 12. The organization also stresses that teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible. Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, explains the link between throat cancer and HPV in a previous interview with SurvivorNet.
“There are no screening guidelines to screen for throat cancer, unlike cervical cancer with pap smears. And there are no standard tests to determine if you harbor the (HPV) virus,” she said. “However, there is no concern that you’re going to spread this cancer to your partner or to anyone else, because at this point your partner has already been exposed to the virus and likely cleared it.”
Advice for Quitting Smoking
Another way to decrease your risk of developing throat cancer, as well as other types of cancer, is to quit smoking.
“We know that there is a causal relationship between smoking and both incidents of cancer and the chance of dying from cancer,” Dr. Andrea Tufano-Sugarman of NYU Langone Health previously told SurvivorNet. “And there are very few things in science that have a cause and effect relationship, but this is one of them, which is very powerful.”
That being said, we have seen a concerning development in smoking rates in recent years. In fact, a recent report revealed that annual cigarette sales went up for the first time in 20 years in 2020. This is an issue because, as we’ve said before, smoking is linked to multiple kinds of cancers, like throat cancer, but it can also effect cancer survival.
Dr. Tufano-Sugarman often counsels cancer patients who are trying to quit smoking, which, she says, is similar to counseling other smokers.
When Dr. Tufano-Sugarman works with people with cancer, counseling is often paired with nicotine replacement therapy. She typically prescribes a daily nicotine patch to manage withdrawal symptoms, as well as a fast-acting option to curb cravings like a nicotine gum, inhaler, or spray.
Her main message for people trying to quit smoking is that the process is not always linear.
“There’s going to be slip-ups and relapses,” she said. “But above all, it’s never too late to stop.”
Strategies for Managing Tobacco Cravings:
- Nicotine replacement therapy. As Dr. Tufano-Sugarman discussed, nicotine replacement therapy is one of the main tools that smokers have at their disposal. Long-acting therapies like nicotine patches can be paired with short acting therapies (including nicotine gum, lozenges, nasal spray, and inhalers) to cope with intense cravings. More research will be needed to gauge the effectiveness of other smoking substitutes like e-cigarettes and vapes.
- Steer clear of triggers. Cravings can be provoked by situations that you are used to having tobacco in. It can help to familiarize yourself with these environments and make plans for how you can manage them without tobacco or how you can avoid them completely.
- Wait. If you feel yourself on the brink of giving in to a tobacco craving, delay smoking for 10 minutes and do something else to distract yourself. Move to a no-smoking area to make it less convenient for you to smoke. Cravings can often subside if given time.
- Chew something. Whether it’s gum, candy, or vegetables, chew something that will occupy your mouth as you resist your cravings.
- Don’t give in to the “just one more” mentality. Smoking once just leads to smoking again. Be careful not to convince yourself that you can satisfy a tobacco craving and then quit after that.
- Exercise more. Boosting your physical activity can distract you from tobacco cravings and also make them less intense. Exercise can mean a lot of different things—even short periods of physical activity can help tobacco cravings go away.
- Try relaxation techniques. Finding new ways of dealing with stress can be an important part of quitting smoking. Techniques like deep-breathing, yoga, visualization, muscle relaxation, and massage can open new doors for the way you relate to stress and smoking.
- Reach out for support. Establishing strong support systems is essential both for people battling cancer and people battling tobacco addiction. Calling a friend or family member to talk on the phone or go for a walk can help remind you that you’re not in this alone.
- Research other resources. The Mayo Clinic recommends a free telephone line—800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669)—for support and counseling. Additionally, there are online support groups for smokers trying to quit, and blogs where people write about how they manage the same challenges you are facing.
- Remind yourself why you want to quit. Whether your goal is to feel better, get healthier, save money, or prepare for cancer treatment, it can help to write down or speak aloud the reason you decided to quit in the first place.
Contributing: Joe Kerwin