Marlene O’Neill, winner of the NBATC’s #SayNoToTobacco Facebook contest. Proud to be now living tobacco-free!

This past January, the NBATC held a #SayNoToTobacco Facebook contest celebrating National Non-Smoking Week by encouraging people to share why they are proud to live tobacco-free and encourage a friend or loved one on their own tobacco-free living journey. The winning entry was Marlene O’Neill (64 years old, Waasis, NB), who received a $50 prize for her participation. Eager to take advantage of the contest, she wanted to share the fact that she had recently quit smoking and was still going strong 5 months into her tobacco-free journey.

It is important to note that Marlene had been a smoker for over 50 years, so this represents quite an achievement. She started smoking when she was only 14 years old. “I grew up in Ontario and at the time, all my friends and I started smoking,” she explains. “We’d smoke on our way to middle school and share a pack on Friday evenings to pass the time. All these friends of mine have since quit at some point in their lives. I am the last one to be able to quit successfully.”

Marlene had a few failed quit attempts before finally finding success. “I remember at one point, when my husband was still alive, I quit cold turkey for 3 months. I was so miserable and irritated that he told me I should start again—I was so hard to live with in that state! On other occasions, all it took was one puff when out with friends or while taking a drink and I was right back to smoking on a daily basis again. I have an addictive personality and nicotine had a very strong hold on me.”

It would take a wake-up call, through dealing with the death of a close friend, for Marlene to find the right motivation to finally succeed in getting rid of her powerful nicotine addiction. “My friend had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). After being diagnosed, it was not long until he needed an oxygen tank. We used to travel and go on all sorts of adventures together, and now we could only go out for about three hours at a time before we would have to hook him up to the oxygen tank again. It was extremely limiting. He died in January 2017 of congestive heart failure. I had seen him on New Year’s Eve, and for a brief moment, he looked like he was doing better. But then, his doctor found him on the floor of his hospital room a few days later on January 4th and called me right away. He had passed way. I was devastated. I was also scared I would end up the same way if I kept smoking.”

“A few months later, in the summer, my doctor put me on antibiotics and steroids. I was struggling with bronchitis which kept lingering and turned into pneumonia. They warned me that I might have an underlying disease like COPD. That warning, and the fact that I was still mourning my friend’s death really shook me to the core. I have grandchildren, an 18-year-old girl and twin 3-year-olds – a boy and a girl. I never want them to see me on an oxygen tank.”

It was on September 7, 2017, that Marlene smoked her last cigarette. But she knew she could not just cut her nicotine consumption overnight and be successful. She decided to use an e-cigarette to slowly wean her off nicotine. “I started with 6 mg of nicotine, and soon afterward, I was down to 4 mg. Since January, I no longer put any nicotine in my vape pen. I still have it, but it is extremely rare that I take it out and use it. It’s just there for me like a security blanket, for those instances when I feel I am overwhelmed with the need to reach for something. I plan on getting rid of it soon. I started finding other things to occupy my time with, like walking. It is best to replace an unhealthy habit with something healthy. I started walking in January in an indoor track, and now that spring is here, I am looking forward to being more active.”

The NBATC does not encourage the use of e-cigarettes. They are also not recommended nor approved as a cessation tool to quit smoking, since there are health risks associated with vaping. Plus, vaping is often a gateway to using tobacco products for people who are not yet smokers. The World Health Organization and Health Canada strongly warn of the dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping products since it’s too early to say whether any of the compounds in the vaporized liquid can cause long-term health problems or might be linked to diseases that take a while to show themselves, such as cancer. New studies are beginning to show that the vapour contains some of the carcinogens and other toxins associated with tobacco smoke, albeit in much lower quantities; that it can cause throat and mouth irritation; and that it can embed tiny metal particles from the device itself into the lungs of users. And when nicotine is added, users can suffer nicotine poisoning from over puffing a device that, unlike a cigarette, never goes out.

However, proponents say e-cigarettes and vaping products can be used in a harm-reduction approach—a way of getting a nicotine fix without inhaling the carcinogens created by the combustion of tobacco. And like in Marlene’s case, when used intelligently and with a clear intention to quit smoking, they can help a smoker gradually reduce their nicotine consumption.

Marlene and her family. Her grandkids inspire every day to keep living healthy and tobacco-free.

Marlene is proud to be completely tobacco-free for 8 months now. “It is absolutely amazing how quickly my lungs started healing after that last cigarette in September. Three days after, I started being able to smell tobacco smoke again if I was somewhere with second-hand smoke. The smell is absolutely disgusting. I had never noticed the smell before. I also recently had a lung pulmonary function test. There were no traces of asthma nor COPD. I know that I got off easy, I am extremely lucky.”

Marlene says that she feels a whole lot better physically and mentally too. “I am able to walk faster. I look healthier, people have been complimenting me that I have more colour back on my face. I also feel like my circulation has improved, I used to have cold hands and feet all the time and this is no longer the case. Plus, I’m so proud of myself. I have received a lot encouragement while I was quitting smoking and I did not want to let my friends and colleagues down, so this helped me along my journey too. I am semi-retired, and my colleagues even recently bought me a gift to congratulate me for becoming a non-smoker. I was really touched by their gesture. I still have cravings sometimes; I think this might never completely go away, but the walking and keeping busy helps me to manage them. I have not given in.”

Another perk of quitting smoking is all the money you save by not spending it on cigarettes. “It’s important to reward yourself when you are doing a big lifestyle change,” says Marlene. She has been giving some of that money to her grandchildren and she also plans to reward herself with a trip to Cuba for her and her 18-year-old granddaughter.

Words of advice for smokers who are inspired by her story and would like to quit smoking: “You have to be mentally ready to be successful in quitting smoking,” she says. “In the past, I tried quitting, because people would bug me and tell me I should quit. I was not ready to do it for myself. I would tell people who are thinking of quitting to come up with a game plan for how they are going to replace the act of smoking and deal with the cravings. I would recommend healthy snacks and getting up and moving a lot—the more active you are, the better!”

Congratulations Marlene! Keep enjoying tobacco-free living and your newfound freedom from cigarettes!

Story and photos used with permission from Marlene O’Neill.

Published in May 2018.

By Nathalie Landry – NBATC Communications Coordinator.