Cancer Wellness

How to support a loved one who smokes (and may or may not want to quit)

man and woman arguing on couch

If you have a loved one who smokes, chances are you have uttered the words: “Just quit smoking already!”

But quitting smoking – or supporting a loved one who is trying – is not quite that simple.

Lisa Di Prospero, Sunnybrook radiation therapist and member of the Smoking Cessation committee, knows that all too well. Her husband started socially smoking in high school and has considered himself a “smoker” for 17 years now.

“He has tried many times to quit,” Lisa says. “He is on his 10th attempt as we speak, and he is doing great.”

It’s tough to find a balance between nagging, worrying and supporting a loved one before or during a quit attempt, Lisa says.

“I tell my husband I am speaking as his wife that doesn’t want anything to happen to him and as a radiation therapist as well,” she says. “I have seen way too many cases of cancers that are classic textbook of someone who smokes. And I don’t want to lose him that way.”

It’s important to understand that many smokers would like to quit but the addiction to nicotine is so strong that they are afraid to try, says Bonnie Bristow, smoking cessation committee member and radiation therapist.

Based on some frequently asked questions, Bonnie has some important tips for supporting a loved one before or during a quit attempt.

My loved one smokes. She seems kind of interesting in quitting but then when I bring it up, she says I’m nagging. What do I do? 

Start by asking if it’s OK to discuss their smoking with them. If the answer is yes:

  • Tell them you are genuinely concerned about them – maybe there has been a recent health issue and you want to be together with them for a long time
  • Ask them what they think about the situation – smoking or their illness
  • Ask: is there something that would motivate you to become more committed to quitting?
  • Tell them that you are there for them whenever they are ready to make a healthy lifestyle change
  • Find out if there is something they are afraid of losing if they are not smoking – friends or social circle?

Listen for change talk – your loved one may not be ready to quit now but might be in the contemplative stage. If they are talking about quitting, help them to set a date and prepare to support them.

Quitting smoking can be a long process and everyone is different how they approach it. Remember, ultimately it is their decision, and they have to quit because they want to — they can’t quit for anyone but themselves.

Are there strategies for helping a loved one quit that I could try without just saying “Quit smoking!”?

  • Create a smoke-free environment (Lisa and her family have set the house and garage as smoke-free zones)
  • Help them avoid triggers.
  • Consider this: Is there something you can give up to show that you understand how difficult to?
  • Help them replace smoking with a healthy alternative.

How can I lead my loved one in the right direction without pushing them away?

  • Be respectful of when and how they decide to quit
  • Get them to see whether their friends in their smoking circle might quit with them – ask the friends and family to be supportive
  • Reward their accomplishments in a positive way, no matter how small if they are going in the right direction.
  • Don’t be judgmental.

It is important that you don’t harass your loved one – it won’t help and may cause resentment, Bonnie says.

“Let your loved one know you will support them regardless of what happens,” Bonnie says. “Go on this unknown adventure with them to have a happier and healthier lifestyle together.”

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About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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