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Smoke signals for cancer

Do you feel the urge to smoke within five minutes of waking up in the morning?

Do you excuse yourself at a social function and light up outside?

Do you smoke even when you are so ill that you are in hospital or in bed most of the day?

These uncomfortable questions are part of a medical programme next month at Saroj Gupta Cancer Centre and Research Institute, Thakurpukur, to help smokers and other tobacco abusers assess the extent of damage the body has undergone.

The clinic will offer tests with instant results identifying the degree of addiction to tobacco — comprising products such as cigarette, bidi, gutkha and other chewable items. This will help gauge a person’s knowledge about tobacco-related diseases — like mouth and lung cancers — and his or her attitude towards the risk factors.

Oncologists say tobacco causes 50 per cent of all cancers but many people weren’t been able to kick the habit because no scientific nicotine replacement therapy is available at the moment in the city.

“Patients at the clinic will be asked to take a deep breath and blow into a device, the spirometer. Those with acute addiction will right away see results like high carbon monoxide level and low oxygen content in their lungs… harmful for heart muscles and brain tissues,” says oncologist Chitta Chowdhury, director of the International Centre for Tropical Oral Health at the University of Warwick, Coventry.

Chowdhury has designed the therapeutic course for the clinic where tobacco-dependant persons will be shown visuals of affected vital organs.

Other than oral and lung cancers, tobacco causes cancer of the larynx, oesophagus or food pipe and the stomach.

“Tobacco greatly increases the chances of cancer. There are around 400 compounds in a cigarette and 12 are highly carcinogenic,” Chowdhury says.

Experts say tobacco-induced cancer is environmental and independent of genetic factors. Lung cancer can happen to a non-smoker while a habitual smoker may escape the disease.

“Genetic and environmental factors can cause cancer independently. Just because no one in your father’s and mother’s family had cancer doesn’t mean you will not get cancer if you go on smoking,” says surgical oncologist Gautam Mukhopadhyay.

Bengal is besieged with 80,000 new cases of cancer every year and 40,000 of these are related to tobacco abuse. “Since most cancer patients come to us at an advanced stage of the disease, it’s difficult to save them. Less than one-third of patients live for five years after detection. In developed countries, two-thirds live for more than five years,” says V.R. Ramanan, deputy director, Tata Medical Center, Calcutta. “Any initiative to create awareness and detect cancers early is welcome because the gulf between demand and supply in cancer care is huge,” he adds.

Oncologists have praised Chowdhury’s month-long nicotine replacement therapy course for nurses — about 50 — and paramedics at the Thakurpukur hospital. Some oncologists are also attending lectures and practical classes.

They are taught how to counsel patients, win their trust and conduct required tests. The nurses will guide the patient to the specialist he or she needs to consult.

After the training programme, the hospital will start the clinic for nicotine-dependent patients twice a week from May 21. Besides the spirometer, the course includes tests for eye ailments, such as macular degeneration that normally sets in at 52-plus but affects smokers at a much younger age and causes blindness.