November 16, 2017

Be a quitter: Join the Great American Smokeout

Every year on the third Thursday of November, smokers across the nation take part in the American Cancer Society Great American Smokeout. Kaiser Permanente employee Colleen Zaldivar shares her path to successfully quitting smoking.

At age 14, Colleen Zaldivar adopted a habit she had been surrounded by her entire life: smoking. She smoked a pack a day for 10 years, finally deciding to quit a year and a half after she graduated from college. Zaldivar, an administrative specialist with Kaiser Permanente Integrated Brand Communications in Southern California, shares her familial relationship with smoking, how a matter of life and death inspired her to quit. She also shares her practical tips on overcoming physical and emotional cravings to free herself from smoking once and for all.

What did smoking mean for you? Tell us about your relationship with the cigarette.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was surrounded by family members who smoked. I was the youngest, so there was a period when both of my parents, my brother, and my sisters smoked in the same home. It was modeled for me that cigarettes were how one dealt with stress, how one took a “break,” and that a cigarette was something to be enjoyed after dinner or while having a pleasant conversation with someone while drinking coffee.

I actually hated cigarettes until I started to smoke as a rebellious teenager. When my first boyfriend broke up with me, my first instinct was to go and buy a pack of cigarettes. At the time, you didn’t have to be 18 to purchase them. It was easy for me to hide that I was smoking because everyone in my family smoked, so I could steal cigarettes from them and smoke out my bedroom window.

How did you come to the decision to finally quit smoking?

It became a matter of life and death for someone else. My boyfriend’s grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, even though he had quit smoking 30 years before. That hit home for me because, up until that point, I felt that I was young and had more time to smoke before needing to quit.

How many times did you try to quit?

At least seven times. With every failed attempt to quit, I learned something. One of the most important things I learned was that the “cold turkey” approach was not going to work for me. First, I had to identify the emotional reasons for why I smoked, and then figure out how I was going to deal with those problems without cigarettes. I accepted that it is okay if it takes time to quit – the important thing is to not give up.

What were some of the barriers you dealt with and how did you overcome them?

Smoking cigarettes with others is a bonding experience. When my friends or coworkers went on a smoke break, I was so tempted to join them. At first, I tried to avoid going out with them but that made me feel emotionally worse. So, I started chewing nicotine gum, going out with them, and just mimicking the hand-to-mouth action while taking a deep breath – I was pretending to smoke. After two or three deep breaths, I noticed that I felt totally fine. My friends chuckled at me, but not in a mean way. I think they understood because they were all smokers. Soon, I replaced the gum with Werther’s original hard candy.

Experts agree that people find success in quitting through a combined use of smoking cessation aids and therapeutic help – was that true for you?

I tried the nicotine patch and the nicotine gum, but the patch wasn’t helpful for me at all. I found that the physical aspect of hand-to-mouth action and taking deep breaths were integral to my satisfaction. Since I did not have health insurance at that time, I did not seek professional help. However, I jotted down my feelings in a journal which was very helpful. Over time, I started a new habit of taking deep breaths and holding my breath for a second, as if smoking, without the hand-to-mouth motion. It turns out that sucking in one’s breath engages the diaphragm and is known as a “yoga” breath, leading to a calm feeling.

Since you’ve been smoke-free, what are some key differences that you’ve noticed about yourself, between being a smoker vs. a non-smoker?

I feel freer and less burdened. Smoking is an addiction, so my mind was always preoccupied by when I could smoke, where, and whether I needed to buy cigarettes or a lighter. I felt chained to the addiction. It dictated a lot of my life. Most people really don’t like smoking, so now I do not have to worry about smoking being a barrier or concern.

I also know that I feel a lot healthier. I can breathe easier, exercise isn’t as difficult, my teeth are whiter, and I smell better.

Most of all, I think I gained a new sense of self-esteem and confidence. It was difficult to quit, but I stuck to it. Once I really quit smoking, other things didn’t seem as daunting. I realized that, if I could quit smoking, I could also do other challenging things if I truly tried.

Did you know ...?

  • Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States.
  • According to experts, it takes an average of 8 to 10 attempts to finally quit smoking. To give yourself the best chance of successfully quitting, you need to know what you’re up against, what your options are, and where to go for help. Find out more and celebrate your decision to quit by joining the Great American Smokeout!
  • Taking care of your health and well-being is important as you move through the process of quitting. Being physically active can provide a positive distraction when the cravings for a cigarette hit you.

Colleen’s 5 tips for quitting:

  • Set yourself up for success by creating a plan, especially addressing how you will replace this habit. Ask yourself what it is about smoking that you love, or feel you need, and see if there is a substitution.
  • Forgive yourself if you mess up. And remember that messing up once doesn’t mean it is over and you are a smoker again.
  • Make a list of all the good things that will come out of quitting, and read it all the time. I taped mine to my bathroom mirror and refrigerator: whiter teeth, exercising easier, better health, better skin, slower aging (sometimes the vanity reasons are the most inspiring). Plus, NOT SMOKING is socially acceptable to everyone.
  • Calculate how much money you will save and what you would buy with that money instead. After a month, buy yourself a treat with that money.
  • Envision your life as a non-smoker and all of the ways in which it would be more enjoyable, easier, healthier, and more attractive.