This past winter, the New Brunswick Anti-Tobacco Coalition (NBATC) held a Twitter contest inviting citizens to celebrate National Non-Smoking Week (Jan 17-23, 2016) by posting photos of signs indicating smoke-free outdoor public spaces in their communities. The goal was to shine a spotlight on the many outdoor public spaces, including entrances and exits to public buildings, in the province that are now smoke-free under the revised Smoke-free Places legislation which came into effect in July 2015, and to remind New Brunswickers of the importance of respecting these new smoke-free zones and spaces.

One participant, in particular, stood out with her numerous entries showing smoke-free signs in the Fredericton and Oromocto regions. Her enthusiasm for sharing the smoke-free message was inspiring. Turns out that contest winner, Karen McGraw, of Oromocto, and her family, had a very personal story to share on how being smoke-free has positively impacted their lives.

Karen’s husband, Mike McGraw, started smoking in the 1960s when he was just 14 years old. Gradually, he became a heavy smoker.

“All my friends were smoking at the time,” says Mike. “Once I started working a part-time job, all of a sudden, I had pocket money, and I used this to buy myself cigarettes.”

He held on to his smoking habit for over 40 years, smoking 1 to 1.5 packs per day, as well as cigars and flavoured cigarellos. His addiction to nicotine was slowly affecting his health and his relationship with his wife, herself a non-smoker.

“Karen was always bugging me to quit,” he recalls. “I tried a few times, but it never lasted. I tried the nicotine patch, but it made my skin itchy. I tried the Zyban pill and the nicotine gum. For a while there, I was constantly chewing nicotine gum, and I kept increasing my dosage, it just was not enough for me. Honestly, I did not have the right motivation to stick with it.”

Finally, with the help of his doctor, Mike was able to put an end to his nicotine addiction in the spring of 2010. “My doctor assessed my situation and recommended I try Champix. It was really my relationship with Karen that motivated me to quit and get professional help. I saw that smoking was not socially accepted anymore, and my smoking was causing a lot of tension between Karen and me. I had to quit smoking and make things better.”

With his renewed motivation and support from his doctor – as well as the right smoking cessation aid – Mike was finally able to quit smoking for good. It has now been six years, and he has remained proudly smoke-free.

“It has improved our relationship significantly,” says Karen. “Before, I felt like he was deceiving me. Since I did not like his smoking, he would often lie to me and go around my back to smoke. We did not want him to smoke in the house when our son, who is now 32, and daughter, who is 30, were living with us, so he was often sneaking out for a cigarette. We’re a lot more honest with each other now. He is no longer tied down to his cigarette breaks when we’re out and about doing things. It’s great to be able to go out in public and not smell like cigarette smoke all the time. I see the positive effects it has had on his health as well.”

In fact, Mike was very lucky. It turns out his 40 years of smoking had already started to take a nasty turn on his body by the time he finally quit smoking for good. Not long after he kicked his nicotine habit, he discovered he had the beginnings of lung cancer and had to have the upper part lobe of one of his lungs removed.

“Some people might be bitter about something like this, but I feel like it was self-inflicted and entirely my fault. I’m so thankful that I was able to quit before the lung cancer had a chance to become so much worst. You know, in most cases, it’s not caught early enough. I had stage 1 cancer when it was diagnosed, and if I had still been smoking when it was diagnosed, it might have been too late.”

Mike’s cancer is now fully in remission, and he has been able to put the health scare behind him and focus on enjoying his life by being as healthy as possible.

“The first thing I noticed when I first quit was that my appetite was so much better. Food just tasted so great! I felt better physically. However, I did gain some weight. I’ve now learned to keep physically active, which is better for my health. I still get short-winded sometimes, but my breathing has improved tremendously. We are saving a lot of money since I am no longer buying cigarettes. My advice to smokers who are thinking of quitting is to find the right motivation and to seek help. You have to do it for yourself and remember that quitting smoking is a marathon, not a race. Don’t beat yourself up and stop trying when you have setbacks, but get the professional help you need and try a different approach. ”

“I would tell smokers to quit as early as they can so that they can turn their lives around before it’s too late,” adds Karen. “We were so fortunate with Mike not to lose him to lung cancer. I hated when he smoked, and I would nag him constantly. I now recognize that this might have aggravated the problem. He needed more than my encouragement; he needed professional support! I would recommend to family members of loved ones who smoke to help them get the professional counseling and support they require.”

“We’re both very against smoking now,” she concludes. “It’s just not socially acceptable anymore, and it’s not good for you.”

Mike agrees. “They really should ban cigarettes! They are very harmful.”

Bravo Mike and Karen! May you continue to enjoy a healthy smoke-free family life and spread your positive anti-tobacco message to others!

Photos and story used with permission from Mike and Karen McGraw.

Published in July 2016

By Nathalie Landry – NBATC Communications Coordinator