More patients are trying to quit tobacco and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center reports it’s not only helping prevent deadly diseases and enabling more successful cancer treatment, it’s also reducing the risk of COVID-19 complications.

The cancer center’s Stop Tobacco Program (SToP), which provides free access to tobacco treatment, has helped more than 1,000 patients with cancer who smoke, over half of whom are not UC Davis Health primary care patients. The program is funded by the Cancer Center Cessation Initiative from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and UC Davis Health.

“That’s a sixfold increase in tobacco treatment annual engagement since 2018, enhanced by the SToP team proactively reaching out to patients outside of the clinic encounter,” said Elisa Tong, an internist who directs tobacco cessation initiatives at the cancer center.

According to Tong, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit there was already a stepped-up effort to expand access to SToP.

COVID-19 meant an even more urgent need to help patients quit, which prompted Tong to initiate a free nicotine patch giveaway from her research grant with the California Smokers’ Helpline.  As of this month, she reports more than 10,000 nicotine patch starter kits have been mailed directly to Californians since April 2020, with about 1,800 in the geographical area served by the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Studies show that patients who smoke have double the risk of getting sicker or dying with COVID-19,” said Tong. “The time to quit is now to protect lung health. Quitting will also greatly improve the chances of avoiding cancer or surviving cancer.”

SToP gives every UC Davis cancer patient access to tobacco treatment

With the support of UC Davis Health, Tong and her team have integrated tobacco treatment into cancer care. Every patient who enters the cancer center is screened for tobacco use and offered treatment. People who use tobacco are strongly encouraged to take part in SToP.

Dr. Elisa Tong, medical director for the Stop Tobacco Program (SToP).

The cancer center is developing and training clinic staff on workflows that connect patients to free tobacco treatment.  For example, medical assistants who screen for tobacco use can also help submit an order for the SToP team to call the patients.

“Tobacco use can impede healing from surgery or radiation treatments and increases the metabolism of some cancer drugs, which can require double dosages and increase exposure to treatment toxicities,” said Terri Wolf, cancer center nurse program manager for SToP.

Counseling and medication support

SToP connects patients with tailored counseling and medication support, in partnership with UC Davis Health’s Health Management and Education team.  Led by Cari Shulkin, a certified tobacco treatment specialist nurse, online classes that focus on strategies to quit tobacco are provided by a multidisciplinary team and incorporate behavior modification, nutrition, medications and relapse prevention. Patients may also be connected to one-on-one telephone counseling support offered by the California Smokers’ Helpline, which is available in multiple languages (Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese) as well as for the hearing impaired. There are also resources for friends and family who want to help loved ones quit.  Medication support includes helping patients and providers with the seven medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration for tobacco cessation.

“We tell patients that when they come to the cancer center, UC Davis will provide them with the best available care for their cancer,” said Tong. “Tobacco treatment is an important part of that care.”

About the Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis who work collaboratively to advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Patients have access to leading-edge care, including immunotherapy and other targeted treatments. Its Community Outreach and Education program addresses disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations, and the Center provides comprehensive education and workforce development programs for the next generation of clinicians and scientists. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis partners with hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California communities to offer patients expert care close to home.  For more information, visit cancer.ucdavis.edu.