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Kicking the habit: One smoker’s journey toward better health

By: Shawn Magrath, Sun Staff Writer Published: December 4th, 2012

NORWICH – Last month, millions of smokers nationwide took their final puff before kicking their smoking habit for good during the American Cancer Society’s 37th annual Great American Smokeout, a day when smokers are encouraged to make a plan to quit or plan in advance to stop smoking that day.

For Chenango County resident Stephanie Meek, the Great American Smokeout marked an 11-month milestone in her tobacco-free life. Meeks lit up her last cigarette in January and since, she said there has been no turning back.

“I used to enjoy smoking. I even looked forward to it. It was part of my routine,” she said, recalling her 15-year history of smoking one or more packs of cigarettes daily. “Smoking is the one thing in my life that I regret starting. Now that I have quit, I don’t have any real regrets.”

Meek’s story begins in January, when she said her six-year-old son returned from school, crying and telling her “You’re going to die.” “They learned about smoking in school,” she said. “That day, my husband and I each decided it was time to quit for our kids.”

Meek, a mother of two, called the New York Smokers Quitline, a NYState Department of Health Tobacco Control program. She heard of the initiative through Tobacco Free Chenango Coordinator James Mutabiilwa during a health fair hosted by her employer. She said she had sometimes considered quitting, but the idea of quitting didn’t hit close to home until she heard the implications of tobacco use from her son.

“The Quitline program was great,” she said. She received two weeks of nicotine patches for her and her husband, free of charge, and a brochure of tips and recommendations to help her through the quitting process. Achievable goals were set and she let her co-workers know about her goals to hold her accountable. She even went so far as to steer clear of other smokers to void herself of the temptation to light up again. “The hardest part was removing ourselves from it to get through,” she explained.

Efforts to stop smoking have really paid off for Meek and her husband, she said, in health and wallet. Not buying cigarettes has saved the two a total $5,280 in eleven months – money ultimately used to refurbish their kitchen floor, she said. “We feel wonderful and the money saved is amazing.” Despite naysayers who didn’t believe her when she said she would quit, “Everyone is very proud of us and people are very respectful of our decision,” she added.

According to the 2012 Chenango County Community Adult Survey, 58 percent of adults employed in Chenango County favor a policy that prohibits tobacco use on the grounds of their workplace. The survey also cites that 17 percent of employed current smokers in Chenango favor a smoking prohibition policy at their workplace. Mutabiilwa has represented Tobacco Free Chenango at wellness events for area employers for five years and stories like Meek’s, he said, are an inspiration.

“I think Steph’s story is great because it shows that although it is hard, one can quit smoking if they’re determined and they put in the effort,” Mutabiilwa said. “In terms of decision makers, especially elected officials, it clearly shows that New York State Quitline program is important to New Yorkers as tobacco funded programs continue to work hard to save lives and money ... It also makes us advocates feel that our outreach efforts have helped somebody, and probably saved her life." You have to have the will power and a good support system,” Meek added. “If you prepare yourself, you’ll succeed.”


Joe Corbi- New Voice Club

Watch Joe's story here

Life after cancer is often called the new normal. It’s a world where survivors have to adjust to numerous life-changing realities. For members of the New Voice Club of the Niagara Frontier, who are head and neck cancer survivors, life means you can no longer breathe through your nose, smell or taste food. Simple pleasures like swimming, conversing with family and friends or even talking on the phone become difficult and frustrating. Our new artificial voices are projected through a hand held device pressed against our necks. The robotic-like sound is how we currently speak and are heard.

I started smoking when I was only 11 years old, which is what everyone else was doing at that time. We never knew about the dangers associated with tobacco and nicotine back then. Smoking was allowed every where, including restaurants, grocery stores and even hospitals. My long journey began when I was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils. The surgery took 14 hours and I was sent home a few weeks later with the ability to eat only ground food. I had to endure significant dental work to prepare for nine weeks of radiation treatments. Three years after surgery I continued to aspirate food into my lungs. A swallow evaluation determined that my epiglottis; the flap of skin that protects your lungs from food or liquid, was damaged by the radiation treatments. The outcome was to have a gastric feeding tube inserted. For the next six years, I lived on medical liquid food which I had to insert into the tube. At the same time, my wisdom teeth had to be removed as they had shifted so much with the damage to my jaw bone from all the radiation. In order to heal more effectively, I was put into a hypobaric chamber to push more oxygen into my bloodstream. Eventually, I had to have all my teeth removed and numerous hypobaric treatments. Due to the slow healing process, I spent a year with no teeth. Imagine having to return to work with a feeding tube and no teeth. A strong will and solid determination allowed me to survive and ultimately get new teeth. I continued to eat through the feeding tube, however, pneumonia was a constant hazard. 


After seven hospitalizations and several near death experiences, a new swallow evaluation determined that my rear saliva gland was causing the leakage into my lungs. I was given a choice either to continue to contract life threatening pneumonia or endure a laryngectomy (removal of voice box) which would allow food to go directly into my stomach with no aspiration into my lungs. The surgery causes the trachea to lose its connection with the throat and oral cavity and creates a hole in the front of the neck for breathing. I chose the surgery which now allows me to slowly eat very small pieces of food and speak using an artificial larynx.

Thinking back on all the years that I smoked in front of my five children truly sickens me. Even my dog suffered from the second hand smoke and died of lung cancer. It is extremely painful to observe the people I grew up with experience the consequences of smoking. We all look back now and wish we would have never smoked a day in our lives, not only for ourselves, but for the anguish and sorrow we caused our families. My wife’s imminent fear of losing me and raising five small children alone is a thought that will always linger in my mind. I am blessed, though, to be alive and given the opportunity to tell my story to thousands of young adults in area schools about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine.

Last year, the New Voice Club school program team spoke to over 5,600 students. We are currently scheduled to increase that number by many more this year. Our message is to inform them that all tobacco products are deadly and sooner or later the toxins will wreak havoc within their own bodies as it did ours. I am living proof that when it does happen to you, and even if you survive, it will be the worst time of your life.  





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