‘Learning I had a predisposition to lung cancer helped me quit smoking’

May 05, 2019
It took some time, but Robyn quit smoking after she learned she had a predisposition to lung cancer. Source: Getty Images

A decade ago I was contacted by a representative of the University of Auckland in New Zealand to complete a ‘respiratory genetic questionnaire’. I was blown away (pardon the pun). I had been randomly selected from a hospital database to take part in the questionnaire addressing genetics and smoking, specifically whether there was a predisposition to lung cancer based on age, family history and genetic variants.

I was asked numerous questions, which gave them a picture of my history as a smoker, which goes back some 50-odd years, and my attempts to quit. I was also offered a gene-based risk test for lung cancer, which I accepted enthusiastically. The test was open to smokers and ex-smokers who had smoked a minimum of 20 cigarettes a day for at least 20 years. It’s disgusting when I look at those figures now.

Roughly half of those in the test group accepted the opportunity and as such we were followed over a period of about six months. We were counselled about the test before giving our consent and swabs were taken to determine our genetic code. Fascinating stuff really!

Raewyn Hopkins from the University of Auckland and Dr Robert Young from the Auckland Hospital conducted the survey. They said that while 90 per cent of people with lung cancer had a history of smoking, a much smaller percentage (around 10 to 15 per cent, from memory) of chronic smokers like me would develop lung cancer, which suggested there were other factors at play in developing the disease.

As it happened, I did have the gene predisposing me to lung cancer. My lung cancer risk score was ‘high risk’. Finding out was quite a shock. Prior to receiving the results of the test I was quite cavalier about smoking, but I was determined to make some changes. I was 60 at the time and I remember thinking that I wanted to make ‘older bones’. Stopping smoking even at that late stage of my life would possibly allow me to make ‘the older age group’.

According to Hopkins, this gene-based testing of lung cancer susceptibility had a positive effect on participants quitting smoking. She said of those involved in the survey more than 80 per cent had taken steps to reduce and/or quit smoking.

However, the challenge for me was how to stop smoking. I wasn’t sure if I had the guts to quit entirely — I’d used smoking as a crutch for so long. I felt alone in making the decision. I considered going ‘cold turkey’, but felt my frailties would see me fail. Would a hypnotherapist work? What about patches?

In the 10 years since I participated in the questionnaire and then the gene-based risk test for lung cancer I have tried many times to quit smoking. It has been hard. However, it seems 2018 was my year and I finally gave the cigarettes up for good. There is hope…

Are you a smoker? Have you tried to quit?

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