Smoke Signals

    St. Jude helps childhood cancer survivors say “no” to nicotine.

    Former St. Jude patient Paul Wright knew he might one day encounter health problems as a result of his cancer or its treatment. Most of those long-term effects were out of his control. But, as an adult, Wright realized that he had the ability to abolish one habit that could dramatically affect his well-being. Now, with the aid of a new smoking cessation study, he is taking a step in the direction of better health.

    Despite the known health risks, about 18 percent of childhood cancer survivors smoke—a rate that is nearly the same as that of the general population. But childhood cancer survivors are more likely to develop second cancers and other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

    In recent years, smoking prevention and cessation efforts have included public smoking bans and the establishment of toll-free quit lines. But this approach did not address the unique needs of childhood cancer survivors. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital established the Cancer Survivors Tobacco Quit Line so that counselors can speak directly to these smokers.

    “The increase in survival rates for childhood cancer has been one of the most significant successes in cancer during the past three decades,” says Robert Klesges, PhD, of St. Jude Epidemiology and Cancer Control. “However, few researchers have addressed the issue of smoking in cancer survivors. Because the population of childhood cancer survivors is growing each year, St. Jude sought an effective way to help these individuals.”

    In the St. Jude study, participants are assigned to one of two interventions: a counselor-initiated group or a self-paced group. In the counselor-initiated group, St. Jude counselors call participants six times during an eight-week period. The counselors help participants prepare to quit, set quit dates and help participants avoid relapses. Smokers in the self-paced group receive the same intervention but are responsible for phoning the counselors. All participants receive nicotine-replacement therapy in the form of patches or gum.

    “St. Jude has long sought to empower cancer survivors, helping them understand the health risks associated with their treatment as well as provide resources for follow-up care. The quit line is an extension of this philosophy,” Klesges says.

    St. Jude counselors on the confidential, toll-free line hold advanced degrees and have professional experience in public health. “We personalize the plan to each participant,” says Charla Folsom, the study’s lead clinical research associate. “We gauge what situations are the hardest for participants and try to come up with a plan to help with those situations.”

    Wright says the calls have been instrumental in his success. “I smoked for 20 years and wanted to quit for a while now,” he says. “The quit line has helped me to make that step. The calls from the counselors have been very helpful—providing a voice of encouragement and tips to move past the cravings.”

    The study is open to all childhood cancer survivors, regardless of where they received treatment. Study organizers plan to enroll 1,000 participants during the next five years.

    Reprinted from Promise Spring 2009

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