Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 7/29/2011 1:14:16 PM ET 2011-07-29T17:14:16

Photographs that appear to show that actor Michael Douglas is still smoking, months after diagnosis and treatment for Stage IV throat cancer don't surprise health experts who say many cancer-stricken smokers just can't quit.

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Up to 18 percent of lung cancer patients and 12 percent of patients with colo-rectal cancer continued to smoke after a cancer diagnosis, according to a recent study by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researcher Kathryn E. Weaver. Just as surprisingly, about 25 percent of their family members continued to smoke, even after watching a loved one's struggles.

"It just speaks to the incredible addictive power of nicotine," said Weaver, an assistant professor in the department of social sciences and health policy whose work was published this spring in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

Head and neck cancer patients may be particularly vulnerable to the pull of nicotine, she said. Half of patients with those kinds of cancers are smoking at the time of their diagnosis, compared with about 20 percent to 40 percent of people with lung cancer.

Scoop: Photos show throat-cancer survivor Michael Douglas smoking.

Plus, patients with head and neck cancers typically have to endure the stress of the diagnosis and surgery or other treatment that can cause changes in eating and appearance.

Some cancer patients continue to smoke because they think there's no point to stopping, but Weaver said that's just not true. Stopping smoking after a diagnosis has been associated with better response to treatment, reduced symptoms and even prolonged survival.

"I do have a lot of empathy for cancer patients," she said. "One message we need to emphasize is that it's never too late to quit."

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