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My View: Kicking 50-year habit helped to save my life

By George Grace

“I have a plan to live forever. So far, so good.” – Steven Wright

I have a fantasy of tobacco industry executives jumping off a roof from having lost my business.

On March 10, 2013, I ended 50 years of slavery to tobacco and all of the great addictive agents some of America’s best chemists put into the nicotine delivery system known as cigarettes – addictives these executives denied under oath to Congress knowing anything about.

In the 1960s, the tobacco industry anticipated me – a kid in a housing project, surrounded by smokers, friends and family alike. If this were David versus Goliath, the story would have ended with Goliath crushing David before he had a chance to launch his stone.

Some of us might remember “Run for Your Life.” Ben Gazzara, playing a jet-setter with some mysterious disease and given one to two years to live, was the embodiment of the saying, “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” A better cigarette commercial, disguised as a drama, could not have been imagined. Being wealthy, he dated beautiful women in exotic locations, and drank and chain-smoked because he was going to die soon anyway.

To a poor kid who didn’t have the maturity or money for most of these pursuits, at least cigarettes – cheap and available then to even grade-schoolers – more than filled the bill, with additives designed to spike my brain’s pleasure center.

Fast forward. When my wife enrolled us in the University at Buffalo Smoking Cessation clinic, I went along with it, albeit with doubts. I’d long past surrendered to my addiction to nicotine.

But the clinic’s method seemed workable: continue to smoke for a week. Write down when you smoked and what you were feeling when you smoked. Sunday night, smoke your last cigarette. The next morning, put on a nicotine patch. Stay at that level of nicotine for two weeks, then cut it in half for two weeks, and then in half again and supplement with nicotine lozenges if needed.

With seven hours to go before quitting, I added aversion therapy – I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked 19 of the 20 before midnight. My mouth tasted like a dumpster when I threw out the last unsmoked cigarette, ashtrays and lighters.

The next morning, I didn’t even want a patch. My wife insisted I wear one anyway, and I did. But a week later, I forgot to replace the patch. I never supplemented with nicotine again.

To my surprise, I have not missed smoking at all. I did get pretty ill, my lungs cleaning out a half century of tars and nicotine. I coughed up blood, which my doctor said was either pneumonia or lung cancer. She put me on antibiotics. A few days later, she told me I dodged a bullet when the CT scan showed the mass in my chest had shrunk to almost nothing. As I healed, color returned to my complexion, and my hacking cough stopped. My energy returned slowly.

Roswell Park said my lungs looked good, but told me to return after a year, then a second year.

Last April, doctors found a spot in my lung that had grown a little. The pulmonologist said it was probably a very slow-growing cancer, locally aggressive, one that tends not to metastasize easily. I went for my biopsy on the second anniversary of quitting smoking.

A few weeks later, the tumor was removed with the lowest lobe of my right lung. I also received photodynamic therapy. There was no sign of metastasis. Whew!

Though I am out of the woods for quitting (no smoker is), quitting goes far beyond one’s own health. It is a vote against the purveyors of death.

George Grace is a poet, writer and visual artist who lives in Buffalo.
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