Editor’s Note: It’s National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and November 19 is this year’s Great American Smokeout—a day to encourage smokers to give up smoking. Four women shared with us their stories on how they were able to look one of the most dangerous addictions in the eye and move their lives past it.
“I knew I had to quit—there was no going back,” a friend shared one summer over late-night drinks. “But even though I was able to quit cocaine—for the life of me, I still need these cigarettes.” He gave me a sad smile and patted his Marlboros protectively. “I know, I know. It’s killing me.” He was 22 at the time.
To those who have never smoked, this might seem like a conundrum. But for those who’ve tried to quit cigarettes—or have watched loved ones try to quit—it’s no mystery. It’s a real struggle. For many, quitting smoking can be the hardest challenge they’ll ever encounter.
In the past few decades, Americans have made incredible strides in combating smoking habits that were once deeply embedded cultural norms. Gone are the days of cigarette lighters and ashtrays in cars and smoking sections in restaurants. But we still have a long way to go. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is still responsible for one in five deaths in America. In fact, it is “the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States.” If you aren’t acquainted with anyone who has died of a smoking-related illness, just go back a couple generations. The toll that tobacco has taken on human lives is staggering.
But I’m not here to lecture you on why you need to quit smoking. I’m here to share the stories of four women who were addicted and how they were able to move beyond the hold that tobacco had on them. More often than not, their success was propelled by inner reflection and, ultimately, love.
Make a Total Transformation —Sarah, 34
“I loved smoking. At one point it was my favorite thing to do.”
Sarah started smoking the occasional cigarette at just 15 years old. But she told me, “I realized I was addicted when I was 17. My family was going out of the country for a week and a half, and I was panicked. I didn’t know how I was going to spend a week and a half without a cigarette.” She distinctly remembers plotting how many cigarettes she needed (a half pack per day), and wrapping them tightly in her clothes, praying that the border patrol—or worse, her parents—wouldn’t notice her underage smuggling attempts. (Note: No one did.)
As the years passed, Sarah had successfully quit smoking four times, but only for nine months each time. “During each of my four pregnancies, I would quit. And I would promise myself that would be it.” Then, weeks after the birth, she would be out and around friends and think, “Oh, I can just have one because I’m out on the town . . .” and then she was “right back to it.”
Her turning point? An epiphany, brought on by a terrible cough. “I had bronchitis every single winter. After one winter, I had realized something. I was going to die young if I didn’t stop.” Lately, she felt that her lungs were particularly weak—and had an innate sense that they weren’t going to last much longer if she kept smoking. After all, at this point in her life, she had been smoking for more than half of it.
“My body was telling me to reject the habit—and in my mind, I knew it was right. My love for my children and being in their future prevailed. I realized that this was no way to live.” She thought about how she never wanted to explain to her children on her deathbed, “Hey, sorry, kids, I couldn’t quit this voluntary thing.”
Years later, she’s now a nurse. Her experience in the medical profession has only made her more thankful for quitting, despite the occasional craving. “Dying of respiratory failure is a painful way to go,” she shares. “I’ve watched people drown in their own fluid. Nothing deters me from smoking like that does.”
Her advice? “Just don’t start,” she laughs. “But really—you have to embrace it as a whole life experience. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I can smoke occasionally,’ or, ‘I’m just quitting because of the money.’ You have to make a complete brain transformation, otherwise you will fail.”
She also suggests facing the physical—and gruesome—facts. “It’s one thing to know it’s going to kill you . . . it’s another issue to watch someone unable to breathe. I realized that no matter what takes me out, I will not have a cigarette again.”
Timing Is Everything —Lisa, 34
“I don’t remember why I started, but I was 16. I had one every couple of days—just one every afternoon.” After Lisa got caught by her father, she temporarily stopped, only to continue the habit her freshman year in college, where she proceeded to get addicted, eventually smoking half a pack a day.
Over the years, she had tried to quit six times prior to succeeding. “But I think the first six times, I really didn’t want to commit to it. After all, at the time it was a part of my lifestyle. I was still going out to bars a lot with friends who all smoked. Plus, I was in my twenties. At the time, I felt invincible.”
It was only really when she got married a decade later—to a fellow smoker—and peeled herself away from the party pattern, that she and her husband realized they wanted to start a family together. “I knew one day I was going to have kids, and I didn’t want to smoke while I was pregnant,” she shares. “Suddenly, I knew that change and responsibility was coming on, and I knew I had to stop.” So together, husband and wife, they made a pact. “I don’t think I would have been successful without him,” she adds.
Now with a different lifestyle, most of the triggers were gone. “I actually realized that I hated it. Cigarettes, to me, now felt disgusting. All at once, I was just in the right mental place to quit.”
To her, the hardest part about quitting were those little routines. “I had always smoked while driving—or talking on the phone. It was weird how I really had to keep mindful about those compulsive little habits I had developed over the years.”
Her advice? Don’t do it until you really want to. “Honestly, I really couldn’t quit until my entire life circumstances had changed.” She shares that there’s no point in wasting all your money on the gimmicks—that instead you must mentally plan and understand the magnitude of your decision to quit. “Don’t underestimate the strength of the attraction,” she shares.
Learn from Others —Sam, 29
“I had my first cigarette when I was 10 years old,” Sam shares. By the time she was 12, she was smoking daily, then quit, and picked up the habit again when she was 15. “I really never labeled myself ‘addicted’ because I never really found that I wanted to stop.”
She tried to quit a few times, “but I was never really serious about it.” That was, until her mom was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at 46. It eventually progressed into brain cancer. Fraught with the reality of death—and seeing how irreversible her mother’s brain damage was, Sam knew she had to quit. “When I talk to my friends who want to quit smoking, I tell them about losing my mother in pieces—how the woman I buried was no longer recognizable as my mother. My mom was a very capable and determined woman; brain cancer took that from her. In addition to being in constant pain and nauseous all the time, she became emotionally volatile, very afraid, and incapable of reason.
“It was heartbreaking to have to explain to my little brothers (who were in elementary school at the time) that they should not take our mother’s behavior personally when she lashed out at them—that she still loved them but just wasn’t in control anymore. It’s not just that my little brothers no longer have a mother but that they hardly remember who she was before the cancer. Instead, their memories are filled with the nasty, frightened woman she became.”
Now equipped with a strong motivation to quit and the support of her boyfriend who would become her husband, the biggest setback for her was “losing a social identity as a smoker.” Smoking had previously offered an excuse to exit large social gatherings and make one-on-one connections. Offering a cigarette was an easy way to make new friends, and realizing that made quitting somewhat of an identity crisis.
Yet she knew it wasn’t worth it. “By making me more acutely aware of the link between smoking and brain cancer than I ever could have been otherwise, my mother gave me the gift of life for a second time by finally getting me to quit smoking.”
Take Responsibility —Chloe, 25
At the age of 15, “I started smoking to fit in with my buddies. And I realized I was addicted when I asked an older friend ‘just to get me five packs to get me through the week.’”
It took Chloe a few times to quit. “The first time was a solid eight-month stretch until I went through a breakup. The second time was a measly three-week stretch until I had a ‘bad day’ and found myself parked in front of a gas station. The wall-to-wall cigarette display was too much to handle. I bought a pack of Newports because ‘at least they’re classy.’”
Meanwhile, she tried the patch, Nicorette gum, flushing “loosies” (a solo cigarette bought at the store) down the toilet, but the only method that seemed to work was changing her social habits. “Unfortunately, I just had to stop hanging out with smokers.” When she moved from her small town in Southern California to Vancouver, it became much easier to disassociate from the habit. But what really changed her mind was her boyfriend. “He was neither condescending nor didactic about my lifestyle; instead he continually expressed how much my health means to him.”
In retrospect, she realizes that she smoked because her life was out of control and “that I had the right to self-medicate.” To her, immediate indulgences looked far more appealing than considering long-term consequences and habits—especially when her future felt so uncertain or inconceivable.
The good news? “I think quitting smoking helped me get out of this habit of thinking that life was happening to me, and encouraged me, finally, to take responsibility for my own actions.”
While each of these women’s stories are unique, I can’t help but draw parallels. They were all extraordinarily young when they started smoking; they all knew it was bad for them. But they loved how smoking made them feel. It took each of them at least a few tries to stop—and ultimately, they stopped only when they realized the magnitude of their actions and for reasons ultimately propelled by the most powerful motivator: the choice to love themselves and another.
If you’re not a smoker, next time you see someone light up, be compassionate, and realize that their story is likely far more complicated than a poor coping mechanism. And if you are a smoker, it’s critical that the only person who can motivate you to stop smoking is, ultimately, yourself. There are many resources for quitting tobacco—but at the end of the day, it’s entirely your choice, as it was and continues to be for these women. No patch or form of cold turkey will be successful unless we come to terms with that.
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock