Quitting smoking after 40 years was surprisingly ‘easy.’ How to get free help.

Sandi Hersh, who had smoked for 40 years, was surprised that stopping was relatively painless once she connected with Collene Curran through a smoking cessation program.
June 23, 2022
Collene Curran is a smoking cessation specialist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. She's a former smoker herself and gives patients free, compassionate help. Photo courtesy of Collene Curran.
Collene Curran is a smoking cessation specialist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. She’s a former smoker herself and gives patients free, compassionate help. Curran helped patient, Sandi Hersh succeed in quitting after smoking for 40 years. Photo courtesy of Collene Curran.

One of the single best things you can do for your health is to quit smoking. UCHealth offers a number of free smoking cessation programs near you.

And while many people hear that quitting smoking can be extremely challenging, Sandi Hersh, who had smoked for 40 years, was surprised that stopping was relatively painless.

“Quitting doesn’t have to be hard. I still can’t believe how easy it was,” said Hersh, 59.

She started smoking at age 19 because she thought it was cool. She quit earlier this year almost by accident.

Hersh had postponed some medical care during the pandemic and was catching up on doctors’ appointments in the spring. Her providers asked if she was interested in quitting. She casually said “yes,” but didn’t plan to follow up. She always felt that smoking cigarettes helped her focus on challenging tasks and frankly, she wasn’t motivated to stop. Hersh figured she’d have one quick conversation with a smoking cessation counselor, then she’d keep on smoking.

But Collene Curran, a certified tobacco treatment specialist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, was so positive and persistent in following up that Hersh was unable to give Curran the slip

Before she knew it, Hersh smoked her last cigarette on April 22. More details in a moment on how Hersh succeeded in quitting.

First, Curran provides some quick tips for others who might like to quit smoking.

Curran approaches her work with great empathy. She, too, used to smoke. Like many people, she started smoking as a teen. She picked up the habit at age 16 and quit in 2005 after smoking for 30 years.

Soon after she quit, she learned she could help others gain freedom from smoking too.

“It’s been my passion ever since.

Here’s some advice from Curran on how to get started toward a tobacco-free life.

Quick tips: How to quit smoking

Set a quit date.

Today is a great day to embark on a path to quitting. Curran advises patients to pick a date. Create a personal goal to increase the likelihood of success.

Tell your family and friends you plan to quit

It’s important to tell those you love that you plan to quit. They can be your support group and encourage you.

Ask for help

People who try to quit cold turkey on their own have lower success rates, Curran said. Free help is available. For some people, prescription medications help. For others, behavioral interventions work. Boost your chances of success by teaming up with a pro who will guide, support and encourage you.

Anticipate and plan for challenges

The urge to smoke is short: usually only 3 to 5 minutes. Healthy coping choices can help you combat cravings. Try the following strategies:

  • Drinking water
  • Taking a walk or climbing the stairs
  • Listening to a favorite song or playing a game
  • Calling or texting a friend

Remove cigarettes and other tobacco from your home, car and workplace

Get rid of everything.

Learn more tips from experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You can also ask your doctor for help or a referral to a smoking cessation pro like Curran. Learn more about connecting with a primary care provider.

What are the benefits of quitting smoking?

Reducing stress

Many tobacco users tell Curran that they are afraid to quit because smoking relieves their stress, when in fact it only relieves their nicotine withdrawal. Taking a break is essential for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be a smoke break.

Because many smokers started at such a young age that they never learned healthy, long-lasting stress reduction techniques.

“Since most of us started smoking as teens. We grew into adulthood without good coping skills,” Curran said.

She helps her patients find new, healthy stress-relieving activities. Studies show that months after people quit smoking, many feel much less stress.

“People think that smoking reduces their stress. But in reality, it causes a lot of stress,” Curran says.

Improved medical outcomes

Many providers require patients to quit smoking prior to surgery as it impedes the healing process. Quitting is of particular benefit to cancer patients who can see improved outcomes of their treatment and a reduced risk of recurrence.

Reduced health risks and a longer life

Many health risks, particularly heart disease and stroke, are significantly lower for those who quit smoking. In addition, quitting adds years to people’s lives.

Feeling better

“When you smoke, you’re not just inhaling nicotine. You’re also taking in several thousand chemicals, a lot of which are carcinogenic,” Curran said. “Smoking can affect every single part of your body. When you quit, you’ll reduce your cancer risk. You’ll breathe better and it will help with a variety of health conditions.”

Enjoying younger-looking skin

“Quitting smoking is a great beauty treatment,” Curran said.

When she sees people months or years after they quit, she can see a striking difference.

“It’s amazing how much healthier they look,” Curran said.

Saving money

Smoking is expensive and will continue to get more expensive thanks to inflation and taxes.

Some people reward themselves by putting all the money they would have spent on cigarettes into a savings account. Before you know it, you’ll have enough money to take a trip or splurge on a fun purchase.

Bragging to your doctors

Many smokers avoid getting checkups because they don’t want to hear about how they should quit smoking. Conversely, once you quit, it’s fun to share the good news.

“It’s wonderful to tell your doctors and health care providers that you quit,” Curran said.

How Curran and other tobacco treatment specialists help people quit smoking

Tobacco cessation specialists have many tools to help people succeed.

Do you want free help to quit smoking?

  • UCHealth offers free nicotine cessation programs.
  • Patients can get medications to assist them. These medications include nicotine replacement products like patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers and nasal sprays.
  • Cognitive counseling is also available.
  • How to get help?
    • Contact your primary care or specialty care provider to get a referral to speak with a tobacco treatment specialist.
    • Or call the patient lines. In the Denver area, call 720-553-0311. In southern Colorado, call 719-444-CARE (2273). In northern Colorado, call 970-224-5209 for the Health District of Northern Larimer County smoking cessation program.
    • Programs are free for patients.

These include prescription medications and nicotine replacement products like patches, lozenges, gum and inhalers, which most insurance health plans cover.

Smokers can elect to use medications like Wellbutrin or varenicline, the generic form of Chantix.

For Hersh, varenicline and some coaching worked well.

“It’s not nicotine replacement,” Curran said. “Instead, it blocks the receptors that nicotine latches onto in the brain. Many smokers find that it makes cigarettes less rewarding. That helps reduce the desire to smoke.”

Curran also has training in cognitive approaches, meaning she can help people learn strategies to change their behavior.

“Changing the way you think is extremely helpful in changing your behavior,” Curran said.

For instance, she helps people see that quitting smoking is not about giving up something. Rather, she asks them to think about what they will be gaining.

“You’re freeing yourself from an addiction. Don’t look at it as a sacrifice. Look at it as freedom,” Curran said.

Instead of thinking of smoking as a stress reliever, for example, consider how much stress it’s causing.

“Smokers are always worried, thinking, “Do I have enough cigarettes? When is my next cigarette break? How do I justify the money? Who do I have to hide my smoking from? How do I push to the back of my mind what I’m doing to my health?’” Curran said.

Stunned to be able to quit smoking after 40 years

Hersh remembers not particularly enjoying her first few cigarettes decades ago, but before she knew it, she was hooked.

She had tried quitting before, but never had much help.

“In the past, I’d always gone cold turkey. The gum was too strong. I was afraid to stick a patch on me,” she said.

She figured she’d wriggle out of another attempt, but mistakenly picked up the phone when Curran called.

“She talked about the medication, Chantix. I knew I needed to get past the mental thing. I thought it would be too expensive, but Collene helped me and the pharmacy gave me great directions,” Hersh said.

She started with a small dose and gradually increased her doses. She considered quitting her “quit plan.”

But, like magic, Curran happened to call when Hersh needed some encouragement. If Hersh was feeling frustrated about missing cigarettes, Curran encouraged her to focus on the positive aspects of life without smoking.

“I was dragged and pulled the whole way. She is nice, which pushed me. I thought, ‘Oh crap. I don’t want to disappoint her.’”

Hersh started taking the medication in early April, continued to smoke some cigarettes and was astonished to notice a difference as her doses increased.

“Usually, after the first drag, I’d feel a calming, energizing feeling in my chest. I didn’t have that anymore.”

Hersh didn’t even realize her last day would be her last day until that night. She went outside to take some drags before bed. But the cigarette didn’t sound that good.

She thought to herself: “I haven’t had a cigarette since this morning. Maybe I’ll go to bed and see what happens tomorrow.’ And I haven’t had one since.”

Hersh has been through some stressful times since she quit, and still, she has managed not to smoke again.

Her husband brought home an Australian Shepherd puppy that the couple named Smalls, like a little gangster. Puppies are busy enough, then Smalls got Parvo and had to be in a veterinary ICU for six days. Then Hersh got COVID-19 and was sick herself.

“It has been super stressful. I have been tested,” Hersh said.

And yet, for the most part, she’s feeling great as a new non-smoker.

“I was so lucky in how it all played out. On the hardest day of quitting, I happened to talk with Collene. She helped redirect my thinking,” Hersh said.

The other day, she got in her car and thought about how great she feels.

“Cigarettes don’t control my life. I don’t have to spend $100 on a carton of cigarettes. I’m not planning my day or my vacation on where I can find a smoke,” she said. “Life has been stressful over the last month, and still, I’m not smoking.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.