What Happens When You Smoke vs. What Happens When You Quit
Smoking Cessation Tips & More for the American Cancer Society Great American Smokeout®
Our lungs work as a filter; they respond to everything we breathe in from the environment and protect us against toxins and other foreign substances. However, when we are frequently exposed to toxins — whether it’s due to a career or an unhealthy habit, such as smoking — the effectiveness of this filter deteriorates, and a cascade of damages can occur.
Chronic smoking negatively impacts the lung tissue and surrounding structures, explains Emma-Ruth Paz-Querubin, APN, NP-C, Nurse Practitioner with the Lung Nodule Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township. Such effects include scarring, swelling and inflammation, the reduction of elasticity and airspace in the lungs, and the reduction of overall oxygen transported to our vital organs.
When it comes to lung cancer, CDC statistics have shown that smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop it than non-smokers.
Smoking can also alter our immune response, adds Paz-Querubin. “Studies show that smokers face a 2- to 4-fold increased risk for respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. There is also a significantly heightened risk for contracting the flu and experiencing more severe symptoms.”
Not to mention, the differences between a healthy lung and unhealthy lung are apparent in appearance alone, continues Paz-Querubin. A healthy lung is a pinkish-reddish color, soft, squishy, and flexible, while an unhealthy lung is pale in color and often spotted with tar or nicotine.
The good news: you can (and should) still quit! Regardless of how many years/pack-years a person has smoked, there will be notable health improvements that occur with cessation.
Within just a day’s time, the oxygenation and carbon monoxide levels throughout the body will start to regulate and inflammation begin to subside. After a few weeks, breathing should become easier and energy should build, as overall lung function steadily improves.
“Not only will your risk for pneumonia and the flu decrease, but so will your risk for cardiovascular disease; stroke; COPD; diabetes; and many cancers other than just lung, including esophageal, oral or throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, cervical, acute myeloid leukemia, and more,” said Paz-Querubin.
A landmark Journal of the National Cancer Institute study found that just 5 years after quitting, your lung cancer risk can drop substantially, by more than 40 percent. While it can never return to that of a non-smoker, it can get relatively close.
The first step: you have to be ready to accept that smoking is bad for you. Nicotine is addictive, making it incredibly difficult to stop, but it can be done.
Whether you’re quitting due to a lung cancer diagnosis, or you’re just ready to make a lifestyle change, be sure to involve any physicians you see routinely from the beginning, suggests Paz-Querubin. “If you see a behavioral health provider, they can be paramount in helping you navigate through mood swings as your body adjusts.”
Your primary care provider or oncologist can point you in the right direction for treatment to aid with withdrawal symptoms, such as nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and more.
“If you live with someone who smokes, you may consider asking them to join you in quitting,” said Paz-Querubin. “Not only can the temptation be detrimental, but so can the exposure to second-hand smoke. Plus, having a partner to quit with you can help motivate you and keep you accountable.”
At the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township, various resources are offered for smoking cessation, including a professionally facilitated, confidential support group, led by Sandy Murray, BSN, RN, OCN, ONN-CG, NCTTP, TTS, Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist, as well as one-on-one cessation counseling appointments.
The statewide New Jersey Quitline also offers free telephone counseling for smokers who are ready to quit, via 1-866-NJSTOPS (657-8677). Other helpful online resources include Mom’s Quit Connection and Tobacco-Free NJ.
Don’t hesitate to quit, and don’t do it alone! Let your lungs heal and reap the benefits of a smoke-free life today.