The puff stops here
Twenty years later after quitting smoking Mary-Helen McLeese tells how this act has transformed her life
Quitting smoking transforms health and well-being.
And no one knows that more than Mary-Helen McLeese.
“Cigarettes controlled my life and made me lose sight of my goals. I’m so relieved that I finally took my life back,” says the Stratford resident.
McLeese was always an above-average athlete. As a young adult, she was a competitive swimmer, a member of the Canada Games team for cycling and a lifeguard. She was very active and loved trying new things.
In junior high, she started smoking occasionally.
“I’d buy cigarettes at the corner store. They sold them individually at the time and there were no age limitations. I’d get a buzz from them and it became fun; all my friends were trying them.”
McLeese continued to smoke casually with her friends through high school.
By the time she was in university, she was smoking a pack-aday or more.
It was at about that time she gave up on her active lifestyle. McLeese felt like a fraud.
“I thought people would judge me and question why I was there when I was secretly smoking at home. So I stopped doing the things I loved,” she says.
During National Non-Smoking Week, Jan. 17-23, the Canadian Cancer Society encourages people to think about why they want to quit and celebrates those who have successfully quit.
“We want to raise awareness of the benefits of not smoking and encourage people to quit,” says Lori Barker, executive director of the P.E.I. division of the Canadian Cancer Society, adding when someone is ready to quit, there are services available, including the Smokers’ Helpline.
“Many people are like MaryHelen. Their negative self-talk makes them think it is useless to try or that they can’t do something because they smoke. That isn’t the case and we can show them how to turn those thoughts around.”
McLeese decided to take her life back when she neared 30. The rising costs of cigarettes and her self-imposed deadline were her motivation.
“It wasn’t easy...but quitting is a lot about your mindset. I kept a full pack of cigarettes in my house. A big part of it was knowing they were there. As a smoker, having the pack meant I had the option of ‘breaking the glass’ if I needed to. I kept that full pack for over six months.”
In 1997, after quitting smoking and moving to New Brunswick, McLeese started swimming to get back into shape. She also started running and cycling and went on to complete a triathlon within 18 months of quitting. She had taken her life back.
“Mary-Helen is the perfect example of how resilient our bodies are. Your body begins to repair the minute you stop smoking,” says Barker, adding that within a month of quitting circulation improves and energy levels increase. After 10 years of quitting, a person’s risk of lung cancer is half that of a continuing smoker.
A non-smoker for almost 20 years, McLeese remains very active. In 2014, she was the only Islander to swim in the Big Swim, a fundraiser that required her to swim across the Northumberland Strait.
“My advice to others struggling with their smoking addiction, is to try something new to get your mind off smoking. Learn how to swim if it’s new to you or start walking, running or biking. Begin slowly and you will be thrilled with just how quickly things improve. Soon you will start to feel good about what you are doing and giving up smoking will not be as impossible as you once thought.”