After smoking for 26 years, Mr Azmi Mohamed Yasin had a health scare and gave up the habit in favour of exercise. He speaks to Ng Wan Ching
Mr Azmi Mohamed Yasin picked up smoking at the age of 21. For the next 26 years, he never looked back. He enjoyed it so much that he was, for much of that time, a two-pack-a-day smoker. He would smoke after meals, when he was stressed and when he wanted to relax. “I was a great, great smoker,” he said. On the first day of Chinese New Year this year, his smoke-filled lifestyle received a huge jolt. He had been feeling uncomfortable and feverish. But on that particular day, he stopped being able to swallow. He could not get anything down his throat, not even a small sip of water. Saliva was dribbling out of his mouth. “I could not talk. When the doctor asked me what was wrong, I had to write down on paper to tell him what I was experiencing,” said Mr Azmi.
In his mind, he already guessed that it might have something to do with his heavy smoking. “I was so scared. The doctor told me it might be cancer. I said, ‘Tell me anything but don’t tell me it’s cancer’,” said Mr Azmi, 47, the co-owner of a shipping company. When the doctors checked his throat, they reiterated that it could be cancer. “My heart sank,” he said. Then came the good news. After more checks, doctors concluded it was an inflammation and swelling of the tissue at the back of his throat.
He stayed in hospital for five days. On three of those days, he was fed with only a glucose drip. “When I was discharged, I was so relieved I resolved never to smoke again. Now, whenever I get the urge, I would think about my fear and my urge would go away,” he said with a laugh. Instead, he has taken up exercise. He either goes brisk walking or swimming. When he is stressed by work or needs to think about something, he exercises instead of smoking. “Before, I would smoke and do my thinking at the same time,” he said. He works irregular hours and blames his smoking habit partly on that. “Now exercise is my poison,” he said.
He has received much encouragement and feedback from his parents, family and colleagues. “Some of them still smoke, but they are very happy for me that I managed to quit. They say I look so much fresher and fitter now,” he said. His children, aged 24, 21 and 18, are also pleased that he has stopped. None of them smoke. They had asked their father over and over to quit smoking, but he never was able to. “Previously, I would smoke while watching TV at home. My eldest daughter used to take my packets of cigarettes and hide them. Now, it’s all fresh air for them at home,” he said. He feels that his body is much healthier than before. “I feel fitter. I can walk longer distances without feeling tired and breathless. I hope to maintain this and not think about smoking any more,” he said. “I also thank God that it wasn’t cancer. God sent me to hospital to wake me up.”
Associate Professor Loo Chian Min, the head and senior consultant of thedepartment of respiratory and critical care medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), said that the number of smokers who manage to quit the habit for good is higher among those who have been hospitalised for medical emergencies or medical conditions. The proportion of smokers who stopped smoking at six months after being hospitalised is 30 to 40 per cent.
This is higher than the figure of about 30 per cent or less among those who attend the smoking cessation programme as outpatients. Inpatients usually come in because of health scares, such as a heart attack or a swollen throat like in Mr Azmi’s case, and are asked if they smoke. If they say yes, then a nurse talks to them about quitting. For many, it is a wake-up call.
Noting that this is a global trend, Prof Loo, who is also in charge of SGH’s smoking cessation programme, said: “At that moment, when their health is poor, they may be more receptive to counselling and advice. Perhaps that is why the ‘stay quit’ rate for inpatients is slightly higher.
Quit smoking with medication
Only one out of 20 smokers who try to quit the habit is able to succeed on the first attempt. Most smokers try to quit and fail six times on the average before they are successful. With supportive programmes and medication, however, the chance of successfully quitting increases from just 5 per cent to 40 per cent.
Associate Professor Loo Chian Min, the head and senior consultant at the department of respiratory and critical care medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), said: “Quitting smoking often requires more than just sheer willpower. Smokers are hooked on nicotine. “We encourage those who want to quit to seek medical help as medications can double their chances of quitting.” These include nicotine patches and certain quit-smoking drug treatments. In the past three years, over 300 patients have signed up for SGH’s smoking cessation programme. It is run by a smoking cessation counsellor and psychologist.