October 17, 2018

A smoker’s dilemma: quitting the cancer sticks

I have overcome some tough issues in my day; joining the military and going to boot camp, recovering from a surgery that should have killed me and battling mental health issues. That being said, quitting smoking is by far the hardest thing I have ever done.

I always knew nicotine was addictive, but I never realized just how much.  It was not until I read a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stating nicotine may be as addictive as heroin that I realized I may be in trouble.

The key to quitting is having the right attitude and mentality. You need to want to quit. My problem is convincing myself I do not want to smoke. I know I need to quit for my health, but it is an activity I enjoy to relieve stress. When the going gets tough, grab a cigarette and go outside.

A huge part of my continued smoking comes down to not actually noticing many of the health impacts. I cough up nasty gunk sometimes, and my lung capacity is not top-notch, but nothing else seems wrong. My doctors have even told me I do not exhibit a lot of the symptoms of someone who has smoked for five years. I feel fine, yet I know that I am not.

Smoking brings with it serious health detriments, even if you do not smoke often or just smoke for a short amount of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, reduced respiratory function and infertility rates among women. Many of those risks are reduced greatly just in the first month after quitting, and most of those risks are gone after a year.

GRAPHIC BY: Dan Carcione and Sarah Blankenship

GRAPHIC BY: Dan Carcione and Sarah Blankenship

I always told myself I would never become a smoker. My first cigarette was at age 21 in Afghanistan after our first firefight. The adrenaline rushing through me was making me shake and throwing off my aim, so a buddy handed me a cigarette. Within a day of getting back to base, I was bumming cigarettes from other friends.

The success rate of quitting is almost as depressing as the health risks of smoking, as shown by the American Cancer Society. Seventy percent of all adult smokers want to quit. Forty percent will try to quit this year. Of that 40 percent, only 3.5 percent are able to quit cold turkey. Seven percent will be able to quit using nicotine replacement treatments (NRT). Of those small percentages who do successfully quit, 50 percent will relapse while drunk.

I am lucky, though. The Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospital supports my decision to quit. They know if I continue, the health cost will eventually fall back on them. To help me quit, I was given free prescriptions for nicotine gum and lozenges. I had tried the nicotine patches years ago, but the skin irritation made me angrier than the lack of cigarettes. The VA recommends using two different methods to quit because it raises the success rate to around 19 percent.

I asked my physician about getting a prescription for Chantix, but she was hesitant about the idea. Chantix is a pill that has been known to help people quit, but the downside is the side effects.

The website for Chantix explains people who use it may experience unusual dreams and an increased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.

The side effects are just as irritating with NRTs. Within the first three minutes of chewing the gum, I start getting nauseous and develop a stomachache. It also causes a burning and itching sensation in the back of my throat even after I spit the gum out.

Though this mountain of a task seems insurmountable, I am still dedicated to the effort. Even as I sit here angrily chewing the gum that will inevitably make me feel terrible, all I want to do is go relax with a smoke. I will not do it. Although it may just be a matter of time before my willpower gives out.

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