“You hear the word cancer and the first thing I thought was “how do I tell my girls?” As a single parent it was a horrendous thought I might not be there for them.”
Cathy, a mum of four, was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2015 and ended up with half a lung removed. She had to break the news to her teenage daughters and even recorded a goodbye video in case she did not survive her operation. In September 2022 a scan revealed the lung cancer had returned and required further surgery. Cathy is now recovering from treatment for cancer on one of her kidneys.
She said: “Every day I wish I could turn the clock back to the time I first picked up a cigarette, or the times I thought about quitting and didn’t.
“I grew up in a poor family and it was normal to smoke. Like many families my parents smoked around us, and we were exposed to smoke from an early age, and nobody thought anything of it. I started smoking at the age of 11.
“Over the years I smoked and smoked. I was aware of the risks but not how great they were. You think it is never going to happen to you because you don’t see the damage. I wanted to quit but kept saying “tomorrow”. I’d have a stressful day and needed a cig and that was it.
“When I was first diagnosed I didn’t have a cough or obvious symptoms but was very tired. I thought it was an infection. Then I had the scan which saved my life. Two days before my 50th birthday I found out I had a tumour on my lung.
“You hear the word cancer and the first thing I thought was “how do I tell my girls?” As a single parent it was a horrendous thought I might not be there for them. The three weeks before my operation were something I would not want anyone to go through. I had to tell my 13 year old and 14 year girls where to find my will and insurance policies. I even recorded a video telling them how much I loved them in case I did not survive surgery.
“My surgeon told me I was lucky– if they had found it another couple of months later it would have been too late. But he also told me that even with cancer my survival chances would double if I quit smoking.
“It was terrifying but the impact on my girls was the hardest thing. They were still so young and really struggled to come to terms with my cancer. My daughter Lily was just 15 and doing her GCSEs but she had to care for me when I came out of hospital. She had to help her mum walk upstairs and get dressed.
“When the cancer returned last year we all thought that was it for me. We have had some very dark times. But the surgery has been successful. In the space of a few months I’ve gone from thinking “How long have I got?” to “Wow I have got something to fight for!
She said: “Even with cancer, quitting smoking was the best thing I could do. I don’t think I would be here now had I continued to smoke and I have the strength to fight what is happening now. My eldest daughter Lily is now a mum and has just quit smoking herself. That has made me happier than anything. What has happened to me because of smoking has been a real wake up call.
“One of the biggest benefits is the money. When you smoke you find a way to buy cigarettes. You eat cheaper food and deny yourself things so you can smoke. In just a few years not buying cigarettes I had enough to put down a deposit on a house.
“I can see the difference in how I look. Smoking ages you and my skin is so much better. My dentist tells me “Cath I can tell that you don’t smoke now.” I can also taste and smell things which is wonderful.
“I feel the benefits every day and thank god I am alive and there with my girls. They have their mum with them rather than a goodbye video. But my health is not perfect. Even keeping fit, having one lung is not easy, especially in the winter when I get chest infections. It is having to do the work of two lungs. Smoking has left a lasting damage.
But she said: “I can’t believe how close I came and I hope people who smoke will listen. There are so many of us whose health has been damaged by smoking. You never think it is going to happen to you, especially when you smoke with family and friends. But also I was able to quit – and even at that late stage quitting saved my life.”
Cathy also has a warning for people quitting smoking that temptation can trip you up when you least expect it. She said: “I had one lapse which made me angry with myself on a night out with friends. I’d stopped for over two years and in the moment I thought I could just have one, but it took me right back to the start. Even after cancer to think I would smoke one just shows what a powerful addiction it is.”