Expressway: My long battle to quit cigarettes

Nancy Gill McShea (now of Rockville Centre) in Nancy Gill McShea (now of Rockville Centre) in a photo on Tennessee Avenue in Long Beach, where she would hang out and smoke cigarettes with friends in the 1950s. She was about 16 years old. Photo Credit: Handout

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I first tried smoking with my friend Joan at the Lynbrook train station at age 14. I passed out, but that didn't stop me from starting a 40-plus-year habit.

Through the years, I torpedoed 100 attempts to quit, witnessed my father and my brother cope with tobacco-related cancer surgeries, ignored doctors' warnings, and tried to outwit human smoke detectors in my family.

Smoking was a deceptive seduction. Almost every teenager I knew while growing up in Long Beach in the 1950s smoked. It was the era of Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. We thought we were cool. We would smoke in a friend's car on Park Street outside Central School. My boyfriend would drive his hot rod with one hand on the wheel and holding a cigarette, and wrap his other arm around me while I shifted into second gear. That image prompted my mother to ship me to a convent-like women's college in Maryland.

Smoking wasn't allowed, but I stole a few puffs in my dorm room and hid the butt in a cup atop a cabinet. The house mother, my first smoke detector, found the evidence and delivered it to the dean of students, who warned that my time there could be brief.

In 1962, my father, a lifelong smoker, lost most of his larynx during throat cancer surgery. I was frightened that he couldn't speak, but he lived for 23 years after surgery and continued to smoke.

I had time.

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My husband, Jerry, tried bribing me to quit with promises of trips to Italy and Paris. I pretended to make headway with products guaranteed to help kick the habit, and blew smoke out the window.

My three children appointed themselves smoke detectors. I would drop off my daughter at local tennis courts and smoke a few cigarettes in peace. She would climb back into the car and turn down all the windows, especially in 10-degree weather.

In 1992, my mother, also a lifelong smoker, died of a cancer not related to tobacco. My doctor warned that I would develop emphysema by age 60 if I didn't quit. In 1999 my brother, also a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He lost a lung but survived.

Still, I smoked.

I was a reporter for a tennis organization and always on deadline. I had never written without a cigarette in the ashtray. My kids ordered me not to smoke in the house, so I would rush outside every 15 minutes and take a few drags so I could think.

On Jan. 10, 2000, something changed. I took a long walk with a friend who was facing surgery for cancerous tumors. At the same time, my daughter had ratcheted up her complaints that my smoking endangered her toddler son.

I felt cornered and quit that day.

I slipped a few times when I was angry or scared, like the night headlights blinded me as I drove on the Southern State Parkway. I was so rattled I bought cigarettes at a gas station. I took a few drags -- and then discarded the whole pack.

It's nonsense to contend that a smoker will quit because it's too expensive. Smoking is a serious addiction; money has nothing to do with it. And the downside to quitting is real. I gained 30 pounds, which triggered debilitating arthritis.

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But I'm thankful that I'm alive to tell the story.

Reader Nancy Gill McShea lives in Rockville Centre.

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