It's Never Too Late to Drink Less Alcohol or Quit Smoking
- Country music legend Willie Nelson, 90, is taking better care of his health by stopping alcohol consumption and quitting smoking – something he suspects may have added some more time to his life.
- If you’re contemplating stopping your alcohol consumption or quitting smoking, you should know that both can reduce your risk of several cancers.
- The American Cancer Society warns that alcohol consumption can “clearly” increase your risk of mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus cancers.
- As for smoking, the American Cancer Society estimates that the unhealthy habit causes about 20% of all cancers and about 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States.
- For tips to quit smoking, experts suggest trying nicotine replacement therapy and avoiding social or environmental triggers.
There’s some truth to that — data shows that cutting out alcohol and tobacco can help reduce your risk of several cancers.Read More
As Nelson continues to play music without even thinking of retirement, he admitted, “There’s probably other things I will do and can do, but I’m not going to push myself too hard. I know one day it all ends, but I’m not rushing it.”
The country music icon, who also said that performing for an audience “keeps me going,” is set to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later this year.
More Expert Resources on Alcohol, Smoking, and Cancer
- Alcohol Can Cause Cancer — So Why Don’t Beer, Wine, Whiskey and Other Booze Labels Warn Us?
- Alcohol Consumption Increases Cancer Risk. Less Booze Is Associated With Lower Cancer Risk, New Data Adds To The Case For Moderation
- Does Alcohol Impact the Risks for Colon and Other Cancers?
- Do You Need Some Motivation To Quit Smoking? Smokers Who Quit By 45 Reduce Their Excess Lung Cancer Risk by 87%, Research Shows
- Take it From a Guy Who Looks at Diseased Lungs Every Day — Stop Smoking
Nelson, however, has not stopped smoking marijuana (also known as cannabis, weed, pot), a mind-altering psychoactive drug that he’s been advocating for over the years.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Nelson’s spokeswoman Elaine Schock confirmed that Nelson, who wrote his first song at the age of seven, continues to smoke cannabis.
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“That said. Willie does what he wants, when he wants, when it comes to smoking,” Schock said.
In an earlier interview, according to The Sun, Nelson recounted, “When I was growing up as a kid, I smoked everything I could get my hands on and through the years it almost killed me. I had lung collapse.
“I was smoking pot along with cigarettes and I was drinking, too, so my health was going real bad,” he continued. “I wasn’t getting high on cigarettes and drinking didn’t do me any good. All I wanted to do was get drunk and fight somebody. I knew I had to quit.”
“So I rolled up 20 fat joints and threw away a packet of Chesterfields (a cigarette brand). I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. Every now and then I might take a drink, but very rarely,” he said, adding, “I’ve had so many of my pals die from drinking and smoking. I won’t name them but there are a lot who would still be here.”
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
If you’re contemplating reducing or stopping your alcohol consumption, like Willie Nelson has done, you should consider how this can impact your cancer risk.
The American Cancer Society warns that alcohol consumption can increase your risk for many different types of cancer. With cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus, for example, alcohol “clearly” increases risk.
RELATED: 6 Tips to Help You Avoid Alcohol When Faced With Stress of a Cancer Diagnosis
With that said, the ACS notes that drinking and smoking together puts you at a much higher risk for these cancers than drinking or smoking alone.
“This might be because alcohol can help harmful chemicals in tobacco get inside the cells that line the mouth, throat, and esophagus,” the ACS website states. “Alcohol may also limit how these cells can repair damage to their DNA caused by the chemicals in tobacco.”
When it comes to liver cancer, “long-term alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk.” When you regularly drink a lot of alcohol, liver damage can occur and lead to inflammation and scarring — a possible explanation for the increased risk.
There is also a clear link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption. In November 2017, the American Society of Clinical Oncology published a statement citing evidence that links alcohol to multiple cancers and calling for reduced alcohol consumption as a way to cut people’s cancer risk. However, many women recently said they had been drinking more during the pandemic, and 70 percent weren’t aware of the resulting increased cancer risk, according to a SurvivorNet survey in February 2021.
Alcohol Can Increase the Risk of Developing Breast Cancer
In an earlier with SurvivorNet, Dr. Elizabeth Comen, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a SurvivorNet medical advisor, said every drink consumed increased cancer risk.
Dr. Comen explained, “What that means is a linear response to risk, meaning that each drink increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. So binge drinking, it’s not good for anybody. And it’s also not good for a woman’s increased risk of breast cancer.”
The ACS also reports that alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum with stronger evidence for this in men than in women, though studies have found the link in both sexes.
Does Alcohol Impact the Risks for Colon and Other Cancers?
Dr. Heather Yeo, a colorectal cancer surgeon at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said she believes alcohol increases risk for certain cancers but acknowledged that the data was mixed, especially for colon cancer.
RELATED: Frank Sinatra Joked About Hangovers But New Guidance Says Even One More Drink A Week ‘Radically Increases’ Your Health Risk
“I do think that high levels of alcohol certainly predispose to a certain number of cancers, including pancreatic and liver cancer, and may predispose to colon cancer,” she said. “But there’s also some data that shows that low levels of alcohol, or a glass of wine here and there, may actually lower your risk of colon cancer.”
Smoking and Cancer Risk
As for giving up smoking, which Willie Nelson has also done, the American Cancer Society estimates that the unhealthy habit causes about 20% of all cancers and about 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States.
“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 told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview.
“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.”
Lung Cancer in Smokers vs. Non-Smokers
The National Cancer Institute reports that tobacco use causes many cancers including cancer of the lung, larynx (voice box), mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, colon and rectum, stomach, pancreas and cervix, as well as acute myeloid leukemia (a type of blood cancer).
People who use smokeless tobacco (snuff or chewing tobacco) have increased risks of cancers of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas.
Lung cancer, which is the second most common type of cancer (along with prostate cancer) in the United States, is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women across the nation. It’s important to note that non-smokers still do get lung cancer, but cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for the disease. This is due to tobacco smoke containing a mixture of more than 7,000 different chemicals – at approximately 70 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, cigarette smoking is linked to about 80-90% of lung cancer deaths, and people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke. Additionally, second-hand smoke can cause lung cancer.
The CDC estimates that secondhand smoke causes more than 7,333 lung cancer deaths each year among U.S. adults who do not smoke.
Take it From a Guy Who Looks at Diseased Lungs Every Day — Stop Smoking
The tobacco in cigarettes is a carcinogen that causes mutations in lung cells and enables the growth of cancer.
Dr. Joseph Friedberg, the head of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, previously told SurvivorNet in an interview. “If you’re smoking, don’t smoke. You never return down all the way to the person who never smoked as far as your risk of lung cancer. But it goes down. It goes down with time. So if you’re smoking, stop. That decreases your chance of getting a lung cancer.”
For anyone who has been diagnosed with lung cancer and continues to smoke, the addictive habit can also influence lung cancer surgery. Smoking can paralyze tiny, hair-like cells called cilia, which line our windpipes and sweep mucus out of the lungs. If these cells are paralyzed, the mucus has a harder time being flushed out of the lungs.
This can heavily influence the aftermath of lung cancer surgery since these secretions can get caught in your lungs and increase the risk of developing pneumonia, a potentially fatal complication for those recovering.
How to Quit Smoking Cigarettes
If you’re thinking about kicking your smoking habit but are thinking that it’s too late to make a change. Think again.
Recent research published in JAMA Oncology suggests that smokers who cut the habit by age 45 canceled out 87% of excess lung cancer risk. Smokers who quit by 35 effectively eliminated their excess risk.
Additionally, the researcher who led the study said smokers who beat their addiction by their 50s and early 60s also meaningfully reduced their risk of dying from cancer.
When Dr. Tufano-Sugarman works with cancer patients who are trying to stop smoking, counseling is usually paired with nicotine replacement therapy. She often prescribes a daily nicotine patch to manage withdrawal symptoms, as well as a fast-acting option to curb cravings like nicotine gum, an inhaler or spray.
She advises people trying to kick their smoking habit that the process is not always linear, noting, “There’s going to be slip-ups and relapses. But above all, it’s never too late to stop.”
Strategies for Managing Tobacco Cravings:
Nicotine replacement therapy.
As Dr. Tufano-Sugarman explained, nicotine replacement therapy is one of the top tools that smokers can use to assist them in quitting the unhealthy habit. Long-acting therapies such as nicotine patches can be paired with short-acting therapies (i.e. nicotine gum, lozenges, nasal spray, and inhalers) to cope with intense cravings.
E-cigarettes and vapes are also substitutes of smoking, however, more research will be needed to gauge the effectiveness and dangers of these and other substitutes.
Steer clear of triggers.
Cravings can come on in full force when you’re in a situation where you’re accustomed to having tobacco. Understanding what these environments are for you and making plans for how you can manage them without tobacco or avoid them completely are crucial.
Feel yourself on the brink of giving in to a tobacco craving? Try to delay smoking for 10 minutes and do something that might distract you. Move to a non-smoking area to make it less convenient for you to smoke.
Cravings can often subside if given time.
Whether it’s gum, candy or vegetables, chew something that will keep your mouth occupied when you’re trying to resist your cravings.
Don’t give in to the “just one more” mentality.
Smoking once only leads to smoking again. Be careful not to convince yourself that you can satisfy a tobacco craving and then quit after that.
Exercise is a healthy habit to get into no matter what. It can also help distract you from tobacco cravings and minimize them. Even short periods of physical activity can help tobacco cravings go away.
Try relaxation techniques.
Discovering alternative ways to de-stress can be a key 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.
Having strong support systems is essential both for people battling cancer and people battling tobacco addiction. Talking to a friend or family member on the phone or going for a walk can serve as a reminder 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. There are also online support groups for smokers trying to quit, and blogs where people share how they manage the same challenges you are facing.
Remind yourself why you want to quit. Whether your goal is to feel better, reduce your cancer risk, get healthier, save money or prepare for cancer treatment, it can help to write down or speak aloud the reason(s) you decided to quit in the first place.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff
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