How did a 77-year-old woman, who smoked for 60 years, quit smoking?

Andrea King, PhD, and Mary Baim
Smoking cessation expert Andrea King, PhD, left, and Mary Baim, who joined UChicago Medicine's Courage to Quit program and hasn't had a cigarette in more than a  year.

Mary Baim started smoking as a teenager in the 1950s and continued to smoke for the next 60 years. In the early days, she sometimes went through a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. She even smoked while being treated for breast cancer at the University of Chicago Medicine.

"I once tried to quit, but it wasn’t a serious attempt, because I was sure I couldn’t do it," she said.

Two years ago, Baim’s dear friend and longtime "smoking partner" died of lung cancer five weeks after her diagnosis. Also, Baim’s oldest grandchildren were nearing the age where they could smell cigarette smoke on her and ask questions. She didn’t want to lie to them or be hypocritical, and that became the driving force behind her decision to quit.

So last year, at age 77, with help from Courage to Quit — a smoking cessation program at UChicago Medicine — she did it. Baim tapered down to a few cigarettes a day and then stopped completely. It’s been more than a year since she’s had a cigarette.

"I’m incredibly proud of her," said Ethan Israelsohn, a clinical social worker who leads some of the Courage to Quit groups. "She got the right help at the time when she had the determination to quit."

Baim started with a visit to her primary care doctor, Mindy Schwartz, MD, who ordered a low-dose CT scan, a lung cancer screening test recommended for some long-term heavy smokers, and referred her to Courage to Quit.

We teach people important skills and help them stay motivated and encourage them to keep working on intermediate goals of cutting back, or doing anything they can do to start making a change.

Courage to Quit was developed by smoking cessation expert Andrea King, PhD, of UChicago’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience, in partnership with the Respiratory Health Association (RHA). It’s a join-anytime, go-when-you-can support group that combines counseling with evidence-based medications. Groups meet three times a week on the hospital’s Hyde Park campus.

Through funding from the RHA and the Chicago Department of Public Health, patients who attend can receive no-cost “starter kits” with nicotine replacement patches and lozenges, and continue with the medications for six weeks. They also can share their triumphs and struggles at the meetings, while encouraging and learning from each other and the group leaders. Baim still attends the meetings, hoping to help others.

"It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had," she said. "I felt included from the minute I walked in. They don’t talk down to you. They meet you where you are and encourage you to stay with it."

Weeks after quitting, Baim’s cough stopped. She used the money she’d spent on cigarettes to buy a gym membership, which is helping her shed the weight she gained while quitting.

"It saves money, but what I feel like I’ve gotten back the most is time. It feels like hours. I’m no longer stopping what I’m doing to go outside and smoke," said Baim, who turns 79 in January.

At UChicago Medicine, more than 500 people have enrolled in Courage to Quit since it started 3½ years ago. Most are over 55 and, like Baim, started smoking as teens or young adults. All have chronic health issues impacted by smoking, such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or cancer.

It’s especially important for cancer patients to quit smoking, because the 7,000 chemicals in a cigarette reduce the effectiveness of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Smoking also increases the odds of cancer recurrence.

That’s why UChicago Medicine launched a unique smoking cessation program specifically for cancer patients called No Smoker Left Behind. The program, supported in part by the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, offers medication support, on-site individual and group counseling, and text and phone support through the National Institute of Health’s SmokeFreeTXT and the Illinois Tobacco Quitline.

Anne Roupas, a tobacco treatment specialist with No Smoker Left Behind, said it can be harder for older smokers to quit because they’ve been addicted to nicotine longer. The biggest obstacles to quitting are stress, increased anxiety and depression, Israelsohn added. The combination of counseling with pharmaceuticals can combat the nicotine addiction.

"Smoking is an extremely difficult addiction. Focusing on a smoke-free goal is important, but sometimes it may not be enough. Many patients need to learn the coping strategies and use evidence-based medications to break the addiction," said Yasmin Asvat, PhD, who runs No Smoker Left Behind with King.

Yasmin Asvat, PhD, Anne Roupas, Andrea King, PhD
From left to right, Yasmin Asvat, PhD, Anne Roupas and Andrea King, PhD

Like Baim, many in the group are motivated to give up smoking for their children or grandchildren. King regularly asks the people in the group to raise their hands if they want their kids or grandkids to smoke. No one ever does.

"They look at me horrified when I ask that," King said. "But I do it for a reason."

In January 2020, No Smoker Left Behind will expand to all of UChicago Medicine’s cancer clinics. It will proactively reach out to cancer patients who smoke via an interactive phone call, during which they’ll be offered all of the program’s smoking cessation resources.

"We want to offer patients every possible option, so they can choose the one that is the best fit," Asvat said.

New data shows smoking has reached an all-time low in the U.S., but still 13.7% of the population (or 1 in 7 adults) smokes cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, 16 million Americans live with a disease caused by smoking and, on average, smokers die 10 years earlier than non-smokers, the CDC reports. Smoking cessation can help the treatment for every illness, King said.

"It’s never too late for anyone," King added. "People don’t magically know how to do this. We teach people important skills and help them stay motivated and encourage them to keep working on intermediate goals of cutting back, or doing anything they can do to start making a change."

Smoking Cessation Program

Everyone’s journey to quit smoking is different, but you don’t have to do it alone. Courage to Quit® (CTQ), a group-based approach to smoking cessation, helps patients like you overcome tobacco addiction and quit smoking for good.

Learn more about our smoking cessation programs.