Young cancer survivors are more likely to smoke than people their age with no history of cancer, scientists have said. This trend is unlikely to be reversed soon, as many of them do not discuss their smoking habits with doctors and do not receive advice on how to quit.

Published in the journal Cancer, the research suggests that despite smoking being a leading cause of cancer for young people, a significant amount of patients continue to smoke long after being diagnosed.

The authors wanted to assess the extent of this phenomenon, as well as to highlight that better prevention strategies could curb the number of smokers.

33% vs 22%

Using the 2012-2014 National Health Interview Surveys, the researchers identified more than a thousand cancer survivors who were diagnosed at a young age − between 15 and 39 years old. To be included in the study, these individuals also needed to be at least five years into their diagnosis.

Data was available regarding their smoking habits, whether they were diagnosed with cancer and chronic illnesses and their general health status.

Comparing them with a control group of people with no history of cancer, the researchers found that 33% of survivors were current smokers, compared with 22% of people who never suffered from the disease. Young cancer survivors were also more likely to report chronic illness, such as having asthma, heart diseases, lung diseases, diabetes and poorer general health.

"Smokers may be more likely to develop cancer and, as we found in our analysis, many survivors of adolescent and young adult cancer continue to smoke cigarettes after their diagnosis, which further affects their health and quality of life," says lead author Sapna Kaul, from the University of Texas.

Addressing the problem

Different factors may motivate cancer survivors to keep smoking, but it is unclear which is more important. "Survivors may continue to smoke because of peer pressure or to bring a sense of normalcy during the stressful phase of treatment and survivorship", Kaul explains.

Rather than focusing on why survivors smoke, the authors believe that the question of how people can stop must be addressed urgently. Indeed, nearly 40% of currently smoking survivors involved in the study reported not having any smoking-related discussion with health professionals in the previous year.

Kaul believes that talking about smoking during medical visits may be the first step towards encouraging survivors to quit smoking. Perhaps more than any other population, survivors of illnesses diagnosed at young ages need to be targeted for smoking-cessation, to help them improve their quality of life and to avoid chronic diseases.