Giving up smoking

Val

Age at interview: 71

Brief outline: Val, 71, gave up smoking when she was 67. Val is White British, has an adult daughter and lives with her partner. She was diagnosed with throat cancer at the age of 67 and had a laryngectomy. Prior to the operation she took varenicline (Champix) for a short time, but now uses nicotine lozenges. Val now warns others of the dangers of smoking.

Audio & video

Val started smoking aged 21, when she says it was ‘fashionable’ to do so and there were no restrictions on where people were allowed to smoke. She says she enjoyed smoking, but did cut down and tried unsuccessfully to give up when her father passed away due to emphysema. Val was prescribed varenicline (Champix) by her doctor, but stopped taking it as it made her feel unwell, and she was concerned by reports in the media of people dying whilst taking varenicline. Val’s partner gave up and her daughter disapproved of smoking, so Val began to smoke in secret. She thought cancer was something ‘that happened to other people.’

Aged 67, Val experienced painful earache and took painkillers before visiting her GP. She was referred to the hospital where she was told she had cancer, following an examination of her mouth and throat with a camera. Val also had CT and MRI scans, and a painful biopsy in her neck, before then being told she did not have cancer. Two weeks later Val received the news that she in fact did have cancer and would need a laryngectomy. Val found this series of events very distressing.

Val says she smoked her last cigarette on the morning of the nine-hour operation to remove her voice box. She could no longer smoke following the insertion of a stoma in her throat and experienced withdrawal symptoms from smoking. Val could not talk for six months after the operation and found this frustrating. She could not eat for nine days whilst the wound healed, and lost weight as the liquid food upset her stomach. Val lost her senses of smell and taste as a result of the laryngectomy, but has now gained an altered sense of taste. She was concerned that the stoma hole would heal over in the night but the nurse reassured her that this would not happen. Val experienced low mood during the following months and says she felt alone and scared. Talking to a psychiatrist helped her during this period. Val found she was allergic to nicotine patches, but found nicotine lozenges helpful for the withdrawal effects of stopping smoking, and still uses them now. She has a check-up every six months and has the valve on her stoma changed every 3-4 months. Val is also diabetic and takes medication for this and to lower her cholesterol.

Val found it difficult to adapt to life after the laryngectomy. Her partner, daughter, sister and friend have been supportive throughout, and she says that her attitude has now changed to a positive one. Val wishes she had given up smoking a long time ago, but she feels optimistic about her future and believes having a sense of humour has been important. She previously thought that ‘cancer meant death’ but is now using her own experiences to help others, by appearing in a health information video to tell of her experiences of cancer and of life following a laryngectomy. Although Val did not attend any support groups at the time, since her operation she has found talking to others in a similar situation useful. Val recalls there being a lack of information during treatment and feels that talking to others can be a valuable source of support.

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