Once you’re addicted, quitting smoking can feel impossible. I smoked for 45 years. What started as something “cool” to do as a preteen became a habit, then a serious addiction I couldn’t control. Finally, it became an embarrassment. A compulsion that I was ashamed of.
My mother passed away in 1969, at the age of 49, from lung cancer. She smoked. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995, the mental wall I had built between cancer and smoking was so thick that I had never connected my mother’s death with smoking. I think deep in my heart I knew, but my nicotine-altered brain would not let me see the truth.
My brother, also a smoker, died in 2013 from lung cancer. He was 52 years old.
I am now 72 years old. I have been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, lymphoma, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure and diabetes – all of them (except maybe diabetes) likely caused by cigarette smoking. Every day, it is harder and harder for me to breathe. I constantly have to clear my throat to speak clearly and cough to clear my air passages and breathe better.
I tried to quit smoking several times over the span of four decades, but it never lasted for more than a few days. It took the drug Varenicline, along with sheer willpower, to finally beat the addiction. That was until January 2009. By that point, I had become totally disgusted with my cowardice in relenting to nicotine. I decided I was stronger. It worked. I put the cigarettes down one morning and never picked them up again..
I accomplished what I thought was impossible for most of my life.
In 2010, I answered an ad by Nova Scotia Health asking for people who’ve successfully quit smoking to share their experience. The clinicians advised me that my story needed to be told far and wide. As time went on, I was speaking not only at Nova Scotia Health, but also at smoking cessation groups in other provinces and states, and at Health Canada and the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC).
I have become a smoking cessation advocate since.
I have had the privilege to share my story with a diverse range of people: from senior residents of Toronto’s Chinatown to First Nations communities and high school students across Canada. Throughout all these interactions, cultural competency and compassion have been crucial for me to connect with people and show them the harms of nicotine, whether that’s through cigarette smoking or vaping.
On your worst day as a non-smoker you will feel better than you ever did on your best day as a smoker.
Canada is in a better place now when it comes to smoking cessation. Things like person-centred care didn’t exist 10 years ago. On World No Tobacco Day earlier this year (May 31), CPAC announced a milestone: 87 per cent of cancer centres now offer smoking cessation supports, compared to just 26 per cent in 2016.
Significant progress has been made, but there is much work still to be done.
We know, for instance, that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and that lung cancer rates are higher among people who live in rural and remote communities compared to urban areas. It’s also harder for them to access the support they need for cancer prevention and care. This is why CPAC has identified keeping people smoke-free as one of its key areas of focus, and is supporting provinces and territories to reduce barriers to quitting.
As a resident of Port Hawkesbury, N.S., with a population of just over 3,200, I can personally attest to these barriers. I have to make regular trips to Halifax and Sydney, N.S., taking me anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours (one way), for my chemotherapy and medical appointments.
This is one of the reasons why I am so committed to being a smoking cessation and cancer care advocate today. If my story stops a 15-year-old from smoking, then I know it was well worth sharing my journey.
For anyone who is currently trying to quit smoking, I know how difficult the emotional and physical struggles can be. My best advice is to keep trying. Someday you will be successful. Find that resolve and compassion, for yourself and for others. Be open to help.
You do not know it yet, but on your worst day as a non-smoker you will feel better than you ever did on your best day as a smoker.