‘I got expert help to stop smoking and it was easy. I’d be livid if I started again’
Belfast gran Linda McCartney was a 20-a-day smoker, but gave up the habit two years ago. Poacher turned gamekeeper, she now works for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland as a stop-smoking specialist and supports other smokers to quit.
As part of No Smoking Month in March, Linda is sharing her story to encourage other smokers to take the first step towards a smoke-free life and encourages them to seek help from stop-smoking specialists, who can be found in a wide range of venues, from GP and dental surgeries to community hubs and at Cancer Focus NI's service centre in Belfast.
Linda (55), who is married to Brendan and has four sons and four grandchildren, says Cancer Focus NI gave her the extra support and tips she needed when she was struggling with her addiction to nicotine.
"Smoking causes one third of all cancer deaths in Northern Ireland and is our greatest cause of preventable ill health," Linda says. "Smokers are four times more likely to stop if they go to a specialist service and use Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT). You don't have to do this on your own."
Linda's story will sound very familiar to many smokers. "I probably started when I was about 13 after I moved to secondary school. It was the thing to do at the time and you wanted to be one of the crowd. Friends would offer you a cigarette or you could buy singles in the corner shop - two No 6s and a pack of Beechnut for 5p or something ridiculous. How times change," she recalls.
"I quit by going cold turkey when I was about 41 for three-and-a-half years.
"Then I went on them again. It was a social thing - if I was out with friends for a few drinks, I'd ask for a puff, then I was asking for a whole cigarette.
"I was embarrassed because I was smoking other people's cigarettes, so I bought a pack and that was me back on them again.
"Another time, I stopped for a full year. I love to have a smoke on holiday, sitting outside in the sun, watching the world go by. I thought I could go on holiday and smoke and stop again when I come home.
"I bought a carton when I arrived in Tenerife and enjoyed them. I didn't bring any home and I had no intention of smoking, but I was hooked again," she confesses.
"This is my third time going off cigarettes. I am a diabetic and I know myself that smoking and diabetes are not a good combination as it can affect your circulation. I had an appointment with a podiatrist in October 2016, who took the blood pressure in my legs as I had been feeling some pain.
"She told me the left leg wasn't great and, if I continued to smoke, in the next 10 years the damage would be done and there would be no going back. I couldn't get that conversation out of my head. And I kept telling myself that I was going to have to do this. I really wanted to get rid of them. It got to the point that I wasn't even enjoying them."
But even then, Linda found herself making excuses - she had social occasions coming up when there would be too much temptation, she'd do it afterwards, it was bad timing...
"I started a new job as a dietetic assistant with one of the Health Trusts," she continues.
"No one there smoked, so I would have three cigarettes in the car on the way to work in the morning. I could smell the smoke on me, which felt terrible and I wanted to stop.
"My youngest son was 18 in February 2017, so I thought that's a marker. I'll stop then. But I put it off, with all the stress of organising a party and clearing up all the mess afterward, it wasn't a good time. More excuses."
Looking through some emails at work, Linda stumbled upon some information about smoking cessation specialists, which she hadn't heard of before.
The Trust employs people to come into the workplace and help you, so she set up an appointment with Darren Whiteside, who is both a Trust and a Cancer Focus NI stop-smoking specialist.
"I told a work colleague that I was going to a meeting with Darren, but I was busting for a smoke. I said, 'As soon as the meeting was over, I'm going out for a smoke'.
"Darren and I chatted away for nearly an hour and after the chat, I didn't go out for that smoke. I couldn't believe it. I had about nine cigarettes left in the pack. I didn't smoke any on the way home.
"One tip Darren gave me was not to leave the cigarettes handy, put them in the boot of the car. I waited until I got home to have one," she remembers.
"I had a full carton in the house, but I was determined I wasn't going to open it - I knew that if I did, I would finish them. I decided to finish the pack and sell the carton, which was a bit of an incentive.
"I had two on Saturday and one on Sunday. By Monday, I was off them. I didn't miss a meeting with Darren - I went once a week for 12 weeks. That was two years ago and I haven't smoked since. I can't get over how well I've done. And how easy I found it," she smiles.
"Because I'm a diabetic, my sugar levels have gone pear-shaped and are not good at the moment, I'm probably eating more sugary things since I stopped," she admits.
"I'm finding the addiction to sugar hard to kick, I'm still struggling with that, but I'll get there."
Linda asked Darren how he got into smoking cessation work as she thought she would enjoy helping other smokers. She did a course and now takes a two-hour clinic every Friday at Dunmurry Dental Clinic.
"I'd do more, but I'm also a support worker for adults with learning disabilities," she says.
"I think the fear of giving up is worse than actually stopping. The whole stress of thinking about it, how you're going to do it, is huge. The nicotine patches were a godsend and I used the gum, too. I'm sometimes tempted if I'm away for the weekend or I'm around smokers, but I get over it.
"I'd definitely recommend a stop-smoking service, like the one Cancer Focus NI has, to help quit. It makes a huge difference - for one thing, you don't want to disappoint your specialist, so that can often get you over a hump.
"If I started again, I would be livid with myself. I'd be back to square one and I want to move forward."
No Smoking Month is coordinated in Northern Ireland by Cancer Focus NI and the Public Health Agency (PHA). The Healthy Living Centre Alliance, the Health and Social Care Trusts, and the local councils, including environmental health, are all members of the NI No Smoking Day/Month Coordinating Committee. For more information on the services available and useful tips to stop smoking, visit cancerfocusni.org/stopsmoking or stopsmokingni.info, where you can also order a Quit Kit free of charge, which will help you plan your quit attempt
Five top tips to help you quit smoking
1. Make a date to give up - and stick to it!
2. Make a plan. Think about what could help you stop smoking, such as using a nicotine-replacement product, and then have it ready before the date you plan to stop.
3. Get support from your local stop-smoking service. Also, let your family and friends know that you're quitting. Some people find that talking to friends and relatives who have stopped can be helpful.
4. Keep busy to help take your mind off cigarettes. Try to change your routine, and avoid the shop where you normally buy cigarettes.
5. Treat yourself. If you can, use the money you're saving by not smoking to buy yourself something special.