Kicking the habit: Throat pain convinces smoker to make a lifestyle change

Editor’s note: This article is part of a three-part series on Addison County residents who have sought help from the Quit Tobacco Program at Porter Hospital in order to kick their cigarette habits.
MIDDLEBURY — Fifty-five-year-old Suzanne Gagnon has been smoking for 30 years. She picked up her first cigarette when she was just 20 years old, and soon she was smoking two or more packs a day.
For the past five years, ever since she was diagnosed and treated for laryngitis, Gagnon has battled with her addiction.
“It took me five years to get to this point,” she said. “And it was a pretty big thing. I could hardly talk and it was a real bad time. I was just moving into my new condo and getting a job and I said, ‘I’ve got to quit.’ And I tried for five years to quit.”
But on March 23, 2010, Gagnon finally managed to shake the habit. For more than eight months now, she has been smoke-free.
“I promised that I would quit and that just led to five months trying to quit,” she said. “For three months I’d (stop) and then for two months I’d go back to smoking. It was just a rollercoaster. For five years I’ve been doing this and for eight months I’ve been trying not to go back.”
Gagnon said that when she started smoking, she was unaware of the health risks that would accompany each pack of Marlboros that she purchased and burned through in a matter of hours.
“When I started out I only smoked a few,” she said. “I didn’t go to a pack until I was five years smoking. And as I grew older I smoked more.”
The pressure that came along with schoolwork and real-world responsibilities led to smoking more frequently. Pressure from friends, too, factored into Gagnon’s inability to give it up.
“My friends all smoked and we were just hanging out together and we just smoked whenever we wanted,” she said.
It was not until she was diagnosed with laryngitis and she was diagnosed with a serious throat infection that Gagnon finally had a wake-up call.
“It scared me when my throat got infected,” she said. “I was wheezing and coughing, and when I smoked the cigarette I would cough and wheeze and my throat would be sore.”
After undergoing surgery to treat the disease, Gagnon was determined to quit.
“I used the patch, I used the lozenges, I used the inhaler and it didn’t work,” she said. “I kept drawing back. But I think I wasn’t as committed as I am now, with more experience and more information on the smoking.”
Her resolve was strengthened when she learned just what exactly she was putting into her body.
“I think the real thing that’s kept me from going back to smoking are the posters,” she said, referring to posters that hang on the walls of the Evergreen Center where Gagnon goes each day after work. “The posters out here show that they put gasoline, fingernail polish, formaldehyde, paint thinner, battery acid — just a lot of stuff that they put in a cigarette now and you wouldn’t believe it. The tobacco companies are doing it to get a cheap cigarette. They put all that stuff in there and the cheap cigarettes burn up fast so that you buy more. They get you hooked.”
The images on the posters stick in Gagnon’s mind, as do memories of her Uncle Roland who, already stricken with emphysema, would remove his oxygen mask to inhale from his cigarette before placing the plastic mask and tube back over his nose and mouth.
“I used to say to myself, ‘You’re going to blow yourself up!’” she recalled. “When I saw the poster I said, ‘My god.’ He was putting this in and now I’m doing it. I have to stop for him.”
And now, after five years of struggling with patches, lozenges, counseling and cravings, Gagnon is finally smoke free.
Since setting the cigarettes aside, Gagnon has found that her life has improved in a number of ways. She is saving nearly $20 a day by not purchasing her usual two packs, which adds up to nearly $600 a month.
“I’ve bought new clothes,” she said. “I was smoking, but I had no new underwear. I bought new shoes and pants.”
Gagnon has also purchased a number of books and has had her condo hooked up to the Internet.
One of the rewarding differences between her life as a smoke and her new, smoke-free routine is her relationship with her little black cat, Sally.
“Now my cat comes to me and purrs and lays on my chest,” she said. “She wouldn’t come near me. I’d pick her up and she’d want to drop. My clothes would smell and she wouldn’t come near me after I’d come back into the house after smoking a cigarette.”
People, too, react differently now that Gagnon’s clothing and breath are no longer infused with cigarette smoke.
“I smell better, I don’t cough, I don’t wheeze,” she said. “All of the good things about quitting are in my vocabulary now. I can talk to the cashier without her saying, ‘Oh my god, she’s a smoker.’”
Gagnon also feels more confident when she is at work washing dishes in Proctor Dining Hall at Middlebury College.
“At the college, you’re close to the kids because you’re bringing the dishes out and I must have passed (the smell) on to them. And now, when they come in and I can smell it on them, I think, ‘Oh my god. He’s so young. He doesn’t know.’”
Now that Gagnon has beaten her own addiction, she hopes to encourage others to do the same.
“Just take one day at a time,” she advises anyone trying to quit. “Young people, especially, if they start, I want them to please think about it and get the information on the cigarette that they’re smoking. I didn’t know 30 years ago when I was 20 years old, but if I had known …”
For more information on the free services available through the Quit Tobacco Program, including free nicotine-replacement products and counseling sessions, contact director Leila Joseph at 802-388-8860.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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