Addressing Addiction

157731476_47Tobacco and alcohol use contribute to over 85 percent of head and neck cancers. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing head and neck cancer than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.  Moreover, continuing using tobacco during radiation therapy creates significantly worse side effects and treatment outcomes. Continuing tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption after head and neck cancer treatment increases the risk of cancer recurrence or new primary tumors by almost double, to about 28 percent.

If you wish to achieve the best possible treatment outcome for your head and neck cancer, it is very important to stop smoking after your diagnosis and during treatment. Alcohol is also not recommended during cancer treatment as it can interact with certain cancer treatment drugs and can worsen mucositis caused by radiation treatments. Your care team can provide advice regarding alcohol and your specific cancer treatment.

Depression and addictions

People who are clinically depressed are more likely to suffer from addictions, and they often have a harder time quitting the substances to which they are addicted. For example, 45 percent of people with depression are smokers, while just 22 percent of people without depression smoke. The negative mood symptoms of depression make it much more difficult to stop smoking successfully. If you are a smoker and have depression, getting treatment for your depression can also help you to quit smoking. This is true for addictions to other substances as well.

Quitting smoking and drinking

Ask your care team for advice about smoking cessation treatment. Nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT), such as nicotine gum or patches, has been shown to improve the success of quitting. Counseling or behavioral therapy helps as well.

A variety of resources on quitting smoking can be found on, a website created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or, a site from the National Institutes of Health.

If you have been a heavy alcohol drinker, note that stopping suddenly can be harmful. Sudden withdrawal can even be life threatening. If you are dependent on alcohol, it is best to get professional help to quit. Ask your care team for advice and a referral to a clinic or rehabilitation facility that can assist you with your withdrawal. Once you are in the process of quitting, try these self-help strategies: find new activities to fill your time or lift your mood, avoid the circumstances that trigger your desire to drink, make a plan to handle urges to drink, and practice a polite and convincing “no” for when you are offered drinks.

Information on stopping drinking alcohol can be found on the Rethinking Drinking website, a resource developed by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or MedlinePlus, a resource of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Avoiding relapses

Former addicts know that the danger of relapse is always there, even years after they have quit. You must remain vigilant, maintain your coping strategies, reduce stress and other triggers and seek out support to remain successful long-term. Counseling and support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Nicotine Anonymous, can help you to stay successful. Remind yourself that the dangers of addiction relapse are far greater for a cancer survivor than for others since relapse brings with it much higher risk for cancer recurrence as well.