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We gave up smoking and life has been so much better

Ahead of No Smoking Day tomorrow, Marie Foy talks to three smokers who have quit the cigarettes after decades so they can enjoy better health and a longer life with their children and grandchildren.

Stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do to improve your health, according to health experts.

Leading local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland is urging smokers to ditch the habit for good on No Smoking Day tomorrow - and they will help you.

Smoking causes a quarter of all cancers in Northern Ireland and is our greatest cause of preventable death and disease, the charity has warned. While there has been some progress in recent years, especially in a reduction in numbers of under 16s who are hooked from an early age, 22% of the adult population here smokes.

Cancer prevention officer at Cancer Focus NI Judith West says: "Surveys tell us that most smokers want to stop - there are just so many health benefits. Twenty-four hours after stopping, lungs start clearing out your build-up of mucus and within three to nine months, your lungs will absorb up to 10% more oxygen.

"Just imagine being able to walk up hills without puffing. Your clothes, hair and breath wouldn't smell of smoke, you'd feel better generally and you'd never have to stand in a hurricane again just for a cigarette. Never mind all the money you'd save. There really are so many reasons to stop now."

Judith points out: "Smokers are four times more likely to quit if they get help, and we have been providing that support for more than 40 years, consistently getting a 68% quit rate in four weeks.

"If you aren't quite ready to stop tomorrow, you can pick a new date and Cancer Focus NI is more than happy to help you to cut down and give you lots of tried and tested tips to make quitting that bit easier.

"We will look at coping with cravings, managing stress, avoiding weight gain and developing a healthy lifestyle. You don't have to face it alone."

Cancer Focus NI's award-winning Stop Smoking service is funded by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and offered in GP practices, health and well-being centres, community, workplace and youth settings including schools.

'My grandchildren gave me a real incentive to stop'

Alma Wynn (62) from Bangor smoked for 40 years and could get through 20 cigarettes a day. She gave up on July 1 last year with help from a Cancer Focus NI stop smoking specialist - and now runs 5k races. She says:

Having four grandchildren gave me a real incentive to stop smoking. I've just come back from Bermuda visiting my newest grandchild, Maisie, who is a few weeks old. Just looking at her makes me want to be fit, healthy and able to visit her and her sister and brother, and to be a good example to them.

Since quitting I am also £250 a month better off and feel much healthier. Now I run - I couldn't have done that before. I've even done a couple of 5k runs and I'm very happy about that. I feel I have really achieved something. Quitting represents all the good things I know are out there for me.

I had half-heartedly tried to stop a few times years ago but wasn't successful. Last year I was at the doctor's. I hadn't been planning to stop but I saw a poster that said 'Most smokers want to stop'. I thought, well, yes, that's true.

I had to go back the following week and the poster caught my eye again. Since I was in the surgery anyway, I decided to ask the receptionist about it - she was lovely and very encouraging, and I came out with an appointment to see a Cancer Focus NI stop smoking specialist.

I must have been thinking about it subconsciously - everything about smoking was annoying me.

I suppose I wanted to be a non-smoker, but without the hassle of actually giving up.

Even when I went to the stop smoking clinic, I was a bit blasé, thinking I didn't have to stop if I didn't want to. But the specialist was so supportive, encouraging and very positive - and before I knew it I was quitting. I took it day by day to see how it would go and it snowballed from there.

In few days I'd cut down to 10 cigarettes a day. A week later I had stopped completely with the help of Nicotine Replacement Therapy - nicotine patches and an inhaler.

I know I never want to smoke again. I had built quitting up in my head to be a huge hurdle and it turned out it wasn't so bad after all.

I can finally say I'm proud to be a quitter and a happy non-smoker."

'It had been part of my life and routine for 35 years... it controlled me'

Grandmother Tammy West (49) from Lisburn had a 35-year habit and smoked up to 20 cigarettes a day. She successfully quit a year ago after her grandson asked her to stop - and now she feels like a new woman. She says:

When I was 13 I started smoking, round the back of the bike shed at school. Everyone was doing it. Back then there wasn't the same information about the damage you can do to your health. There were very seductive adverts and glamorous film stars and singers did it. If you wanted to be one of the in-crowd, you smoked.

I'm embarrassed to admit that 30 years ago I smoked throughout my pregnancy when I was expecting my daughter, Stacey. That hit home when Stacey was expecting her first baby. She has three little angels now, the youngest is just one year.

I'd never told my grandchildren that I smoked, but obviously I didn't hide it very well. My grandson Jayden, who was three at the time, said one day 'Nana please don't smoke'. It played on my mind - I really wanted to set a good example for them.

Cancer Focus NI came to my workplace with a stop smoking service for employees, so I joined in. I was a bit sceptical - I thought no one could help me, I'd be a smoker until I died. Then the stop smoking specialist pulled out a jar of the tar that goes into your lungs, and she had me. A light clicked on in my head.

She was there to support and encourage me, giving me useful advice. She suggested tried and tested techniques that actually worked. I didn't want to disappoint myself by failing, and I didn't want to disappoint her. She made all the difference.

After cutting down on the number of cigarettes I was smoking, and changing my habits slowly, one by one, I finally stopped in June last year. It was hard - smoking had been very much part of my routine and life for 35 years - it controlled me, no matter where I went I was constantly thinking about where I could go for my next smoke. It's lovely to be free of it. I was in a firm routine at work, smoking during my breaks. I had to work hard at breaking that habit. If you get through one day that is an achievement. I still go for my breaks, but now I take a walk and chat to people instead of going to the smokers' area.

I joined a gym and made myself too tired to go outside in the evening for a smoke. It was really intense for the first three weeks and then got easier.

The new me is more relaxed, I'm fitter and healthier and have more money in my pocket. I can't think of a single thing that would make me smoke again. If you have your eye on the prize and you really want it, you can do it."

'I didn't want my son to know, it felt underhand, sneaky and ridiculous'

Connor Quigley (41) lives in Belfast with his wife Gemma (39) and five-year-old son Michael. He quit last May - and now cycles 30  miles each Sunday. He says:

I'd been smoking for about 23 years getting through 10 cigarettes a day - but I wasn't a very happy smoker.

My mum died of lymphoma when she was 78 and my wife's mum died of cancer, too - neither of them smoked but it really focuses your mind - why add to your risk of such a horrible death?

I had always said I'd give up when I had children and do fatherly things, but when the time came I kept putting it off. It got to the point where I was actually hiding from my son around the back of the house for a smoke or disappearing off if we were out for the day.

I was ashamed of smoking and didn't want him to know - I didn't even want him to know it was a thing you could do. It felt sneaky and underhand and just ridiculous.

When the Cancer Focus NI stop smoking specialist came to our workplace I signed up for their course. I wasn't immediately converted - it was still a 'maybe' situation. When I got a date for a meeting, it started to feel real. The specialist's presence made me confront doing what I said I wanted to do.

We met in work for 15 minutes each week when I got my nicotine patches and the support I needed. I used nicotine patches for two or three weeks and then a nicotine inhalator. I still have that but haven't used it for about a month.

After a few meetings I was invited to choose a quit date. It was a plan but it wasn't being forced on me, it was my choice and I stuck to it, which was really good.

The specialist support gave me a framework for stopping.

In a month after quitting I'd saved enough for a pass for W5 and Gemma, Michael and I can go there all the time. I also took up cycling and bought a new bike. Admittedly, I put on a stone after I quit but once I started to cycle I lost two stones. Now I ride 30 miles every Sunday, which I'd never have been able to do before, and joined the ride to work scheme and love it.

The Cancer Focus NI stop smoking service is fantastic and I'm so happy that I did the course."

The benefits of giving up

The health benefits from giving up smoking begin within 20 minutes of stopping, and will greatly increase over the years. After your last cigarette …

■ 20 minutes - blood pressure returns to normal

■ 24 hours - carbon monoxide is eliminated from your body and your lungs start to clear out mucus

■ 48 hours - no nicotine is left in your body. Taste and smell improves

■ 72 hours - breathing becomes easier and your energy levels will increase

■ 2-12 weeks - circulation improves, making walking and running easier

■ 3-9 months - coughs and breathing problems improve as lung function improves by 10%

■ 5 years - risk of heart attack falls to half that of a smoker

■ 10 years - lung cancer risk falls to half that of a smoker

Top tips for quitting

■ Talk to Cancer Focus NI, your GP, nurse, pharmacist or any health professional

■ Get pharmacotherapies such as patches, gum or tablets, if needed

■ Join one of Cancer Focus NI's free, confidential and informal weekly stop smoking support services, funded by the PHA

■ Write down all the reasons you want to stop and stick it on the fridge to help you stay motivated

■ Talk to your friends, family and workmates - support from them is essential

■ Get your friends to quit with you and keep each other motivated

■ Get information on local services and advice on www.want2stop.info and order a free Quit Fit

■ Find out more about Cancer Focus NI stop smoking services on 028 9066 3281, behealthy@cancerfocusni.org or www.cancerfocusni.org

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