Ask an Expert: Can a three-year smoker become as healthy as a lifelong nonsmoker?

Q: “I’m 23 years old, and the thing I regret most is putting that first cigarette in my mouth. I’ve been smoking for three years, 18 to 25 cigarettes a day. Today, I decided to quit. In three years of smoking, how much did I damage my body? Is there any chance of becoming as healthy as a lifelong nonsmoker?”

Answer provided by Rachel E. Sanborn, M.D., thoracic oncologist, Providence Cancer Center, and co-director of the Providence Thoracic Oncology Program

Congratulations on making the decision to quit smoking! Most people who start smoking have no idea how many aspects of their health can be affected by smoking, and how quickly and easily they can become addicted.

So, how much damage has been done? This is difficult to answer with any specifics, because most of the data we have on smoking is based on long-term smokers, and every person’s situation is unique. However, we do know that any amount of smoking – even just breathing someone else’s cigarette smoke – causes harm. My surgical co-director at the Providence Thoracic Oncology Program – a program that specializes in treating people with lung cancer – wrote an excellent answer to another person’s question about the harm caused by smoking just one cigarette. It should give you a good idea of the potential harm that may have occurred during your three years of smoking.

Once you quit, can you ever become as healthy as a lifelong smoker? Not quite, perhaps, but close. Again, we don’t have statistics comparing three-year smokers to people who have never smoked. But computer models estimate that if a person quits after only a few years of smoking, the risk of dying from a tobacco-related cause (such as heart disease, stroke, and many other diseases besides cancer) will eventually approach that of a nonsmoker. According to the National Cancer Institute, a person who stops smoking at age 30 reduces his or her chances of dying prematurely from tobacco-related diseases by more than 90 percent.

The risk of a tobacco-related death goes down the most within the first few years of quitting. That means that, in general, the earlier people quit, and the longer they stay free from tobacco, the closer (and faster) they come to the overall risk level of a lifetime nonsmoker.

That being said, although the risks of developing cancer do go down over the years as a person continues to abstain from smoking, they will never get down to exactly that of a nonsmoker. This is particularly true for women, who develop lung cancer earlier and with less tobacco exposure than men.

This much is clear: As soon as you quit, your body starts to repair itself. Quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do for your health, so I hope you’ll stick with your decision. If you need help, Providence offers lots of resources to help you quit.