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Dr. Matthew Schabath focused on improving his health and keeping himself occupied to finally quit smoking.

Addiction to nicotine is a disease, and I experienced this disease firsthand.   I served in the U.S. Navy in the early ’90s. While there were many restrictions regarding where and when military personnel could smoke, smoking was still permitted, and cigarettes sold on base were much cheaper than buying them in town. As such, these addictive and deadly little items were commonplace. 

My march toward addiction started off as a casual smoker such as having a smoke and coffee break with shipmates or in the evening when we were hanging around the barracks. This casual social smoking eventually turned into a daily habit driven by the addictive nature of nicotine. At its worst, my habit was a pack a day and continued through four years as an undergraduate college student and even in graduate school when I studying lung cancer!

After nearly 10 years of this habit, I started noticing impact on my health: I would get winded from climbing stairs, I was coughing up phlegm in the morning and during exercise, and I found myself thinking about the next cigarette throughout the day every day. This impact on my health was the motivation for me to quit smoking. It wasn’t easy. I probably “quit” smoking cold turkey five or six times before it was permanent. I remember the actual physical pain of nicotine withdrawal the first time I tried to quit. I could barely sleep.  The mornings were equally as terrible because smoking a cigarette was the first thing I did every morning.

Finally, after numerous failed attempts over a course of a year or so, I came up with my strategy to beat this. I realized I needed to occupy my time and energy to distract myself from the urge to smoke. I took up swimming, I joined a soccer team, started biking around town, and took long evening walks while I listened to my Sony Walkman CD player (remember those?). I did all this to keep myself occupied. I changed my diet and started eating healthy. I made goals to lose weight. I made exercise goals to improve my distance and time in swimming and biking. Since I was more focused on improving my health and keeping myself occupied, with every passing day the urge to smoke lessened. Decades later, the thought of having a cigarette never crossed my mind. 

While the journey to quit smoking will be different for everyone, it’s important to stress that it’s never too late to quit. If you want and need help to quit, there are national and statewide programs available to help smokers kick the habit. Based on my own personal journey, I urge smokers not to be discouraged if it takes several attempts to quit. As you can see by my words, you are not alone and not the only person to struggle with this very difficult habit.

This article was written by Dr. Matthew Schabath, a lung cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.