A lot of people will reel off regurgitated medical facts when asked about the dangers of smoking. However, lots of everyday foods and products can cause us harm, yet we’re convinced that the risks “are minimal” or “non-conclusive” – think about the amount of fuel exhaust we inhale every day and tell me there isn’t a risk of lung cancer. I’m not saying that smoking isn’t bad, I’m saying that producing a pie chart of health hazards does nothing to inspire the average smoker to give up.
I am an ex-smoker – almost 4 years have gone by since my last drag. I was a very hard-core smoker towards the end, every point in my daily life punctuated by a cigarette. I’d think nothing about spending the majority of a night out smoking alone, away from everyone. I was very addicted, and with that addiction, a kind of selfishness set in. I’d gladly open up a door in the middle of winter just so I could smoke. My smoking was so bad that I developed asthma; rather than give up, I’d take a puff of Ventolin every 4 hours. The months before I finally gave up, I was on 20 cigarettes-a-day on a normal working day, and 60 on a night out (the body’s craving for nicotine is greatest straight after finishing a cigarette. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, and so you won’t stop yourself giving into the craving. This is why “chain smoking” is most common when drinking). Many nights, I would take a drive to the petrol station at 2am just so I had some cigarettes when I woke up the next morning. I found that I couldn’t go to work without £5 in my pocket, just so I could buy cigarettes.
A normal working day’s smoking schedule went thus; with a cup of coffee first-thing; on the drive to work; at 10am with other smokers; at 12.30pm before lunch; at 1.30pm after lunch; at 3pm with other smokers; on the drive home. I was managing 7 cigarettes in the office as a minimum; if I was on the road or on-site that day, I could easily double this figure. On a normal evening, the number of cigarettes went up by 6 (playing computer or working) or 10 (visiting friends or just lounging around the house) or 20 (going down the pub).
Despite being a fairly-informed person, I took the attitude as most smokers do; complete disregard for the facts, and a belief that I was an exception to the statistics. I also had the trump card to prove my invulnerability; a grand-dad who smoked all his life, but died at the respectable age of 90, meaning that I was actually genetically immune to the effects of smoking! Take that, science!
There’s two problems with this viewpoint; one, the tobacco in cigarettes today is a LOT different to the tobacco sold 80 years ago. Tobacco today is chemically-treated in many ways and for many purposes, mostly to enhance flavour, age, and addictive properties. The downside is that the smoke that modern tobacco produces is a richer mix of toxic chemicals, but that doesn’t matter; since tobacco contains toxic chemicals anyway, what’s a few more matter? Or so the logic dictates.
The second problem is that my grand-dad died at age 90, but his quality of life is never mentioned. He might have suffered for the last thirty years of his life. This brings me neatly onto my own experiences, and a reason why giving up smoking should be on most smoker’s New Years Resolution lists for 2012.
In April of 2008, I visited my company’s office in Exeter, setup my laptop, done some work, then went downstairs for a cigarette. When I finished (my last cigarette ever), I raced up the stairs two-at-a-time, and felt something weird in my stomach, like a twitching spasm. I felt my pulse and was horrified to find that my heart was beating irregularly and out-of-rhythm. I remember shouting to the receptionist that I was having a heart attack, then sat on the floor telling people that I didn’t want to die and making a complete fool of myself. The ambulance came, announced that I was having an SVT (more detail about this in a later post) and rushed me to hospital. And so began three years of panic attacks, stress, and mental anguish, my experiences of this worthy of a separate post. Relevant to the subject of smoking though, the doctors informed me that my SVT was caused, in part (a large part I might add) to smoking.
A bit about SVTs; firstly, THEY ARE NOT DANGEROUS. If my doctor had said this to me in 2008, I think I would have been a lot better off. However, in my mind, I had suffered a heart attack. SVT stands for SupraVentricular Tachycardia. Anytime you see the word ‘tachy’ in medical terms, it usually means ‘rapid’. I could copy and paste the article on Wikipedia for you, but I will put down the way it was explained to me. The heart beats because the brain sends an electrical pulse from the top of the heart down, the signal splitting into two in the middle of the heart. This makes the heart contract/beat. An SVT is caused when this electrical impulse “loops” around in the centre, causing the heart to beat irregularly (but, I might stress, the heart still functions as normal). It does need medical attention as a prolonged SVT can start to cause damage, but we’re talking double-digit hours rather than a few (mine lasted for 4 hours). This “looping” behaviour is usually caused by a slight defect within the heart, and can be easily remedied with keyhole surgery. It can also be caused by lifestyle, the main culprits being smoking, drinking alcohol, fast food, late nights, and stress. In my case, I ticked every single one of these attributes. Smoking and stress are closely-linked (my employer really didn’t give a toss about the stress-part, dismissing my concerns with “everyone’s always under stress” and expecting me to get over it in my own time and without any support). Anyway, although smoking didn’t kill me, it did give me 3 years of total mental anguish which I would not wish upon anyone. All because of smoking.
Onto the second instance of smoking-related pain. My mother and father are/were both heavy smokers too. Interestingly, although cigarettes have always been within reaching distance of me, I only started smoking at the age of 17, and that was because of friends rather than family. In a way, smoking brought me and my parents closer because of the sharing & social element of smoking. My father in particular has smoked since he was 14. He is a robust man, has been fairly overweight all his life, doesn’t drink but enjoys his food.
About two years ago, he started complaining of abdominal pains, especially when eating “heavy fat” foods such as cheese. This isn’t like my father; he tore the muscles in his chest once and he was only convinced to go to hospital when his co-workers concluded that he was having a cardiac episode. My mother made him avoid foods that was setting off this pain, but they got worse and worse and worse until one morning my mother called me to take him to hospital. They scanned him and, to everyone’s surprise, announced that he had an inflamed aorta aneurism. The surprise came from the fact that this condition is usually symptom-less.
An aneurism is where the vein or artery wall stretches, threatening to split and causing an internal bleed. The most widely-known type of aneurism is the brain aneurism, but aneurisms can occur in many places. Most aneurisms are caused by physical defects, impacts, or other force-related injury. Interestingly, the exact cause of an inflamed aorta aneurism is unknown, but it’s NEVER seen in non-smokers. Being the aorta, if it were to split, it would be extremely difficult to get to, raising the dangerous nature of this condition.
With most types of medical decisions, there is a ‘risk of death by the condition’ vs ‘risk of death by surgery’ to be considered. My father’s aneurism, when first identified, was 3cm protruded, meaning that the risk of death was smaller than the risk of surgery. However, there still remained a chance that the aneurism would rip anyway. This changed my father as he was constantly worrying about dying suddenly and at any time. He became withdrawn, unwilling to do much, and constantly snapping at my mother. Needless to say, this was the main reason he stopped smoking but the damage was done. The aneurism would never heal itself and would get bigger over time. It would need operating on eventually.
12 months later, my father was hurriedly booked in for a stent to be fitted as the protrusion had grown fairly large fairly quickly. A stent can be thought of as a replacement arterial wall, slipped inside and inflated so that the pressure of the blood isn’t exerting on the aneurysm, therefore doesn’t burst. In effect, it bypasses the aneurism.
Although always a delicate procedure, my father’s stent would be fitted by going in via the groin. This would improve recovery time and reduce any complications, or so we thought. After the stent was fitted, my father came to in agonising pain in his left hip. During the procedure, some matter had become dislodged and blocked the artery to his kidney. Warfarin was prescribed to try and thin down the blood and clear the clot, but it did not succeed and the kidney failed. Happily, the second kidney is more than able to do the job of both, although heavy drinking and contact sports is strongly discouraged when running off one kidney.
My father started to recover and returned to work. A few weeks later, he was rushed into hospital as a clot had been trapped in his leg, formed from the healing incisions in the groin. Another operation was scheduled and a couple of stents were fitted to expand the arteries in the groin, improving blood flow. This lasted a few more months, until the buttocks and groin started to hurt; again, blood flow due to scar tissue. The last surgical operation looks to have been the final one for now, but my father will always require regular scans to make sure the stents are still secure, and will be on Warfarin for the rest of his life.
I suppose my message about smoking is that death isn’t the end-result to worry about; it’s the pain and misery that smoking-related conditions cause leading up to death. Both of the scenarios above aren’t the worse that can happen either; cancer and emphysema are probably the most frightening conditions to suffer and ultimately die from. All I can say is that my post-smoker’s world is a lot better now; I can smell things, take big lungfuls of air, have improved my personal hygiene (this was a big revelation for two reasons; one, I realised how terrible the smokers in my workplace smelled, and two, how badly I must have smelled, especially to girlfriends!), saved money, can spend all night in a pub talking to people, and am not ruled by a chemically-induced schedule of ‘having a fag’ every hour or so. It can be painful to give up, but there is more help available than ever. Alan Carr’s books on smoking are very effective, but the biggest chance to succeed is to believe that you will. If you feel like you’re being forced to give up, you won’t give up. It is an addiction, but you will beat it if you simply have the right frame of mind.