Sun & Skin News

History of Smoking Affects How the Body Fights Melanoma

By Ali Venosa • February 19, 2019
smoking

According to a new study, melanoma patients with a history of smoking are more likely to die from the disease than patients who do not smoke. The study, funded by Cancer Research UK and published in the journal Cancer Research, found that melanoma patients with a history of smoking cigarettes are 40 percent less likely to survive the disease than those who have never smoked.

The study authors believe smoking may decrease the immune system’s ability to fight melanoma. However, it is not clear which chemicals in cigarettes are directly responsible. More than 700 melanoma patients participated in the study, which reported several genetic and environmental predictors of patients’ immune response to melanoma. Though the study could not determine for sure that smoking caused the drop in survival, other researchers have reported smoking has an adverse effect on the immune system.

“The result is that smokers could still mount an immune response to try and destroy the melanoma, but it appears to have been less effective than in never-smokers, and smokers were less likely to survive their cancer,” says lead author Julia Newton-Bishop, MB ChB, MD, professor of dermatology at the University of Leeds. “Based on these findings, stopping smoking should be strongly recommended for people diagnosed with melanoma.”

There are many factors that might affect a melanoma patient’s prognosis, including the cancer’s stage when detected, where on the body it is located and the general health of the patient. The earlier melanoma is detected, the easier it is to treat. When the disease has a chance to spread beyond the original tumor site to lymph nodes and distant organs, it becomes more difficult to treat and may be fatal.

Aside from its possible effect on immune response, smoking can also be a detriment to healing from skin cancer surgery. Numerous scientific studies have shown smoking cigarettes can significantly reduce the blood flow necessary for wounds to heal properly, according to Robert H. Gotkin, MD, a plastic surgeon who treats many skin cancer patients after Mohs surgery.

“Nicotine in cigarette smoke causes blood vessels to constrict,” says Dr. Gotkin. “This reduces blood flow and, in the case of a freshly healing wound, can starve the wound healing site of oxygen and life-sustaining nutrients.”

There can also be a higher risk of healing complications in patients who smoke, including wound breakdown, localized tissue death and infection.

If the heightened risk of lung cancer isn’t enough to convince people to quit smoking (or never start!), smoking’s effects on skin cancer are certainly another good reason. For information about quitting smoking, visit the American Lung Association website at www.lung.org.