As someone who works for ear, nose and throat doctors — including those that treat cancer — Suzanne McInish knows better than most how cigarette smoking can affect health.
But after smoking for three decades, she also knew how difficult it was to give up the "aaaaaaah" of relief that comes with each drag in an increasingly fast-paced world.
"It was ‘my time' and something I did to relax, something just for me," says the 45-year-old UC Davis Health System administrative assistant. "I never smoked in my home or my new car, but that few minutes outside was all mine to think or relax by myself."
McInish was smoking a pack every two or three days this summer when she learned of the Health System's new campus-wide no-smoking policy. With a hard July deadline looming and previous attempts to quit solo and "cold turkey" ending in a fizzle, she signed on for one of the six-week medical tobacco cessation courses UC Davis offered in conjunction with the new ban.
As of press time, McInish has been smoke-free since May 20.
"You can almost see the relief on my daughter's face," she says. "She says that she wants me around for a long time, and even gets up every morning now to make sure that I take my vitamins."
McInish started smoking as many people do: as a teenager, because it was "cool," and because her parents smoked. As she grew older, smoking grew more important as a relaxing interlude from stress.
But it also led to yearly bouts with bronchitis — and created worries about more severe health impacts.
"One of our ear, nose and throat oncologists told me my voice was starting to get raspy, and that meant it was one of the first signs that it was time to quit (before the onset of more serious health effects)," McInish says. ‘Scary!"
Scary too, though, was the prospect of undergoing an intensely personal struggle like quitting cigarettes in a group setting.
UC Davis group cessation programs focus on techniques to modify behavior, control weight gain, use nicotine replacements effectively and prevent relapses. Instructors also recommend use of medications like Chantix, which blocks the rewarding effects of nicotine and encourages release of brain chemicals that reduce cravings. The classes are run through the Health System's Wellness Center and Chronic Disease Management Program, and can involve range of health care professionals, from cardiologists to dieticians.
Although solo counseling and follow-up support classes are also available, "there's a lot of accountability in a group," says Cari Shulkin, a registered nurse and tobacco treatment specialist who oversees the program. "There's cohesiveness and because they're all in it together, they draw strength from each other."
Nervous at first, McInish now considers Shulkin's help and the group setting big keys to her success.
"I definitely think it helped me to be around others who were thinking the same thoughts as me and going through the same anxiety, questions and feelings that I was going through," she says. "Most of my classmates said it was helpful to know that someone else was thinking that same thought, or going through the same difficulty of giving up your smoking ‘triggers' — things like driving, talking on the phone or having your morning coffee.'
Instead of reaching for a cigarette to help destress, these days McInish might call a friend or go for a walk.
"I get cravings every day, but the medication helps and the gum helps for some people, too," she says. "I'm pretty stubborn and I just tell myself that I'm stronger than this addiction. I tell myself I no longer smoke."
She also counts herself lucky to have the support of another important smoker in her life — her mom, who is now trying to quit herself and is committed to no longer smoking around her daughter. There's no denying that it feels like a little something's missing from their Saturday coffees at Starbucks, McInish says, like there is during other "trigger" times. But she also knows she was often missing something all those years she was on the porch lighting up.
"I think about all of the time I took away from important moments or events to go and have a cigarette and I feel a sense of loss — that I lost time smoking," McInish says. "Now I know that smoking won't cause me to miss a thing."