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Smoking During Head & Neck Cancer Therapy Tied to Poor Outcome

FRIDAY, Feb. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Patients with head and neck cancer who continue to smoke while undergoing radiation treatments have a much lower long-term survival rate than those who kick the addiction, researchers have found.

In the study of patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, 23 percent of 101 patients who continued to smoke were still alive five years after treatment, compared with 55 percent of matched patients in a control group who quit smoking before they began radiation therapy.

In addition, 53 of the patients who continued to smoke suffered cancer recurrence, compared with 40 patients in the control group. The patients who kept smoking also had more treatment-related complications such as the development of scar tissue, hoarseness and difficulty eating.

The poorer outcomes for persistent smokers were found both in patients who had radiation alone and in those who had surgery prior to radiation, the study authors noted in the report published in the February issue of the International Journal of Radiation Oncology/Biology/Physics.

"I've always told patients, 'You should really stop smoking,' but I had no tangible evidence to use to convince them that they would be worse off if they continued to smoke," lead author Dr. Allen Chen, residency training program director at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, said in a news release from the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

"I wanted concrete data to see if smoking was detrimental in terms of curability, overall survival and tolerability of treatment. We showed continued smoking contributed to negative outcomes with regard to all of those," he added.

Further research is needed because actual cause of death was not determined for each patient, so the study did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between smoking during treatment and worse outcomes, Chen explained.

If a person doesn't quit smoking even after being diagnosed with head and neck cancer, they might have other risk factors that contribute to poor survival, he pointed out, including alcohol abuse, less social support and other high-risk health behaviors.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about head and neck cancer.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Society for Radiation Oncology, news release, Feb. 16, 2011

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