Kathie Reeves was 17 the first time she smoked a cigarette.
“It was at a church retreat,” she says. “An older girl was smoking, and I tried it. That was the beginning.”
It was the beginning of a long road to trying to become tobacco-free. Back then, a teenage Reeves had to hide cigarettes in her closet to make sure she didn’t get caught by her parents. She would wait to slip outside to smoke a cigarette after they had gone to bed.
When she left home a few months later and headed to East Carolina University to study social work, she was free to smoke as often as she wanted. Predictably, her habit got worse.
“I was smoking a pack a day,” she says. “I smoked the whole time I was at college, but I set a goal for myself that I would quit once I graduated. And I did…for three days.”
“I set a goal for myself that I would quit once I graduated. And I did…for three days.”
Reeves tried to quit smoking several more times over the years, but she just couldn’t break the habit.
“I always tried to quit cold turkey,” she says. “But there was just no way I could do it. The attempts to quit were pretty infrequent. I would set a date for myself, the date would come, and I would quit. I’d usually make it a day or two before I picked it back up again.”
Reeves is not alone. The American Cancer Society estimates that smokers may try to quit eight to 10 times before they are successful. Reeves wanted to quit but just couldn’t stop reaching for the cigarettes. This is also very common; according to data gathered by the CDC, nearly 70 percent of smokers report wanting to quit completely.
Reeves had another good reason for wanting to quit. She has diabetes, and diabetics who smoke are at higher risk for serious health complications such as heart and kidney disease, peripheral neuropathy (damage to the nerves in the arms and legs), and circulation problems that are sometimes so severe they lead to amputation.
For Reeves, her tobacco use made circulation problems in her leg even worse and put her at risk for some of the most severe side effects of diabetes.
In 2007, Reeves talked to her doctor about strategies to become tobacco-free, because she had so little success going cold turkey on her own. Her doctor recommended Chantix, a smoking cessation medicine that helps relieve some of the withdrawal symptoms people experience when they quit smoking.
The first time Reeves tried Chantix, she stayed tobacco-free for eight months. A few years later, she made another attempt, again with the help of Chantix, and this time managed to stay tobacco-free for nearly a year and a half.
Her latest lapse came in April of this year, triggered by stress over an upcoming move.
“I hit a stressful moment, and I just wanted a cigarette. And I thought, I’ll just smoke a couple. But two led to three, and three led to a pack. Suddenly, I was back to this habit,” she says.
Because Reeves struggled with staying tobacco-free in the past, this time her doctor recommended the Tobacco Treatment Program (TTP) at UNC Family Medicine. The program not only provides access to tobacco cessation aids like medication, patches and gum, but it also offers counseling services to make the transition to a tobacco-free life a little easier.
Reeves is hoping the program can help her stop smoking for good this time around. In addition to giving her access to Chantix, she talks periodically with her counselor from the TTP about what’s working, what’s not, and her overall progress. The periodic phone check-ins help ensure she feels supported.
Reeves says the key to staying tobacco-free also means keeping herself busy. “I work out three times a week at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, and I’ve taken a couple of courses at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro; I’ve been working in ink and brush lately.”
Reeves, a retiree, is also heavily involved with the Seymour Senior Center, where she serves on the board of directors, as an officer for the Friends of the Seymour Center and as chair of publicity.
“I’ve just got to keep doing new things,” she says. “And giving up on quitting is just not an option. I’m going to keep at it until I am tobacco-free for good.”
Learn more about the Tobacco Treatment Program and how to get help for you or someone you love.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated in August 2019 to include the new name for the Nicotine Dependence Program, now called the Tobacco Treatment Program, in the Department of Family Medicine.