“I started smoking when I was about 16 years old, working as a delivery boy for the drug store,” 82-year-old Ernest Couch said.
Everyone smoked cigarettes then so it just seemed like the thing to do, he said.
“It was cool to smoke,” his wife of 63 years, Jimmie Couch, added.
The couple smoked cigarettes for many years without any idea it might be harmful.
But in 1968, Ernest Couch started to rethink his habit while working as a truck driver. He noticed that when he smoked he “just didn’t feel right” in his chest. So he quit, plain and simple.
“He quit the easiest I’ve ever seen,” Jimmie Couch recalled.
She remembers him carrying a pack in his shirt pocket for more than a week after he smoked his last cigarette “just in case.” But he never touched the stuff again.
“I just made up my mind to quit and when I did, I never smoked another one,” Ernest Couch said.
Jimmie Couch, however, said she had a much harder time kicking the habit. She’ll be the first to admit that though she hasn’t had a cigarette in many years, there are times when she’d still like one.
“It took a long time to get off of ’em. I even dreamed about the things. Smoked ’em all night and didn’t get anything out of it,” Jimmie Couch said.
But after being ex-smokers for more than 40 years, the consequences of their shared habit caught up anyway.
“He’d had no use for tobacco at all. Then this X-ray in a routine physical showed an abnormality,” Jimmie Couch said.
Ernest Couch was 78 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Doctors removed the top portion of his right lung and he received chemotherapy treatments for six months. He’s been cancer free for three years.
“We’re doing great. We don’t expect this to lick us. We think something else is going to get us,” Jimmie Couch said.
Ernest Couch is one of the lucky ones.
According to the Centers for Disease Control 158,592 died from lung cancer in 2008, the latest data available.
That same year, another 208,493 were diagnosed with lung cancer.
The American Cancer Society encouraged smokers to quit Thursday with its 37th annual Great American Smokeout.
The benefits to quitting start almost immediately after taking the last puff of a cigarette.
The body will do its best to repair the damage, but there will always be some increased risk for disease.
Lung cancer isn’t the only way a person’s health can be affected by tobacco. There are several other tobacco-related illnesses like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary disease, that can be just as devastating.
But that doesn’t mean a person who has smoked for a long time should think their health is beyond saving.
According to the American Cancer Society, within 20 minutes of quitting a person’s blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop. In the next 12 hours the carbon monoxide levels in the blood drop back to normal. After a few weeks circulation and lung function improve.
After a year of not smoking the excess risk of coronary disease is half of a current smoker’s. Ten years without a cigarette will reduce the risk of dying from lung cancer to half that of a current smoker.
“It’s not a hopeless cause if you’ve smoked for many years. Even just stopping for a day, a week, a month, a year will improve your health,” Angie Caton, oncology educator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said.
She said it seems like a lot of people think that once they’ve started smoking or have smoked for a long time there isn’t a point in quitting because the damage has already been done. But even people who have quit for a short time report feeling more energized and being able to breathe easier.
But quitting isn’t easy.
Caton said a lot of people get discouraged when they quit for a while and start back up again. But she said it’s important for anyone trying to quit smoking to understand that it’s a process.
“It’s all very individualized and everybody has success or failure. Most everybody that tries to quit will fail. You’ve got to keep trying to quit. Most people have to quit many time before they’re actually successful,” Caton said.
Part of the challenge can be blamed on the number of nicotine receptors in the brain. The more receptors there are in the brain, the more the body will crave nicotine. Over time the number or receptors will dwindle making the desire to smoke lessen.
Another piece of the challenge is figuring out what to do in place of smoking. A person may have smoked after a meal or while driving in their car for so long that it just doesn’t feel right to do the activity without a cigarette.
Smokers can increase their chances of successfully quitting by setting a quit date and coming up with a plan to combat the cravings.
There are several programs available to help guide smokers through the process and find solutions that may work for them. Tips and plans can be found on www.betobaccofree.gov, www.cancer.org or by calling the Georgia Quit Line at 1-877-270-STOP.