Last January, Alisa Soos enjoyed a sunrise atop Mt. Haleakalā on the Hawaiian island of Maui. She and her husband carried their two sons on the hike and managed to snap a picture as proof they made it. As the sun inched above the horizon, it dawned on Alisa how easily she could breathe in the thin, crisp air.
Alisa has been tobacco-free since 2007, and not a day goes by without a reminder of what that choice has granted her. Ten years ago, she admits, it would have been hard to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded. But today, 39-year-old Alisa is healthy, and she wants to encourage others that it’s never too late to quit smoking.
In fact, Alisa has made it her job. She transitioned two years ago from St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s surgical intensive care unit as a nurse coordinator, to the oncology program, where she now works as a lung nodule nurse navigator. Every day Alisa encounters patients at risk for lung cancer – many of them lifelong smokers – and she uses her own personal journey to encourage them to start their own toward a tobacco-free life.
A Moment of Truth
Alisa grew up in a smoking household, where both her mother and father were regular smokers. She and her two brothers had second-hand smoke exposure throughout their childhood, before becoming smokers themselves. It was never a big deal, Alisa said. Until it was.
In June 2007, Alisa’s mother was diagnosed at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor with late-stage lung cancer. Doctors gave her nine months to live, for which mother and daughter resolved to quit smoking. In spite of her best efforts, Alisa’s mother lost her battle three months later.
“It was just the worst thing ever,” Alisa said.
But during those final months, Alisa said her mother was a staunch supporter of her quest to quit.
It takes, on average, seven to 10 attempts for someone to successfully quit smoking. As determined as Alisa was, she said she struggled through her own share of slip-ups on her cessation journey.
Disrupting old routines and making new ones helped. Talking to her husband helped. Eating Gobstopper candies whenever a cigarette craving hit helped. And then Alisa began to notice changes. That persistent cough in her chest was suddenly gone. She could climb the stairs – with ease! These small triumphs kept Alisa going, even when she had a slip-up.
“Just focusing on the fact that I could choose that, or choose to breathe and to live” helped tremendously, Alisa said.
Cessation experts now know that the “cold turkey” theory they espoused years ago just doesn’t work for most. It’s persistence that wins in the end. Alisa says it’s persistence and a heavy dose of compassion and understanding.
“You can never brow-beat people about this. You have to just talk to them, talk to them, and talk to them in the most kind and patient way in the whole world,” she said.
Alisa said many patients are ashamed to admit they smoke, and even more ashamed when they try to quit and slip up. She encourages her patients to identify their triggers and temptations, talk through them, and find new routines to stay the course.
“You just have to keep quitting,” she said, adding, “I think people who struggle just aren’t successful yet.”
Alisa is now working on getting her father to quit smoking for good, after he suffered a heart attack earlier this month. She’s a self-proclaimed “nag,” but she is determined to use the same strategies she uses with her patients at St. Joe’s, and she’s optimistic that he will be successful.
As Alisa gets ready to celebrate the Great American Smokeout, the national interventional event by the American Cancer Society that challenges people to quit smoking for the day, she encourages others to find someone who might need a little nudge.
“I understand how addictive smoking is, and how important it is to help these people quit,” Alisa said.
“Some people are so thankful for that help to quit, and to be able to breathe.”
If you or someone you know is trying to quit tobacco use, take the pledge on Nov. 16 and celebrate the Great American Smokeout with St. Joe’s.