Smoking survivors share life changing stories in new quitting campaign
Shocking, raw and life-changing experiences from former smokers in the North East take the spotlight in a major new quitting campaign.
Fresh is launching the Smoking Survivors campaign on Monday, June 19 with a powerful call to the region’s 314,000 smokers to “make a fresh quit” attempt.
Cathy Hunt and Sue Mountain are two real life “survivors” who were diagnosed with cancer from smoking while still in their 40s. In their own words and graphic footage, they speak of the shock of diagnosis and the devastating impact on their health, finances and family. Their emotional pleas will be featuring on TV adverts and billboards across the North East and North Cumbria.
Fresh is urging smokers to visit the regional quitting hub FreshQuit.co.uk for tips, advice and local quitting support.
It comes as a survey  of smokers in the region by Fresh and published today shows that:
- 77% regret they ever started to smoke.
- 46% say they reallywant to stop smoking.
- 53% are trying to either quit (13%) or cut down (40%).
- 81% want to quit for health and 46% want to also quit for finances.
The campaign is being run by Fresh as part of a commitment by all 12 local authorities in the region and the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Board to reduce smoking – one of the region’s leading causes of health inequalities, the biggest cause of cancer and the single largest cause of preventable deaths.
Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh and Balance, said: “Cathy and Sue are incredibly brave and inspiring people. Their only hope is to prevent more families in our region from going through the worry and the pain from smoking that they went through. This campaign gives them and others like them a voice to share their lived experience.
“Their stories are personal, but they are also the story of so many families across the North East and the UK. Most people who smoke get addicted as children and try to quit many times. Sue and Cathy have suffered greatly because of tobacco but they are now living every day glad to have put smoking behind them.
“Every time you try to stop smoking you learn, even if you don’t succeed. That is why we are encouraging people to make a fresh quit – this time it can be different.”
Amanda Healy is chair of the Association of Directors of Public Health North East and Director of Public Health for County Durham. She said: “The North East has seen one of the highest rates of smoking and smoking-related illness in the country but also one of the largest falls in smoking. Campaigns like this which raise awareness of the harm of smoking and benefits of quitting reach across generations and encourage people to stop and stay stopped, or not to smoke in the first place.
“The North East is working together to reduce the burden of smoking-related illnesses and improve the chances of all our residents, from babies to older people. But we also need action nationally to make smoking history for more families.”
Recent figures from Cancer Research UK show that the rate of people dying from tobacco in the region is higher than the England average. Smoking remains the biggest cause of death in the North East and is responsible for around 3,100 cancer deaths each year. That’s a third (33%) of all cancer deaths in the region.
Dr Neil O’Brien, executive Medical Director for the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Board, said: “Smoking is one of the biggest causes of ill health and early death in our region which is why we have set a goal to reduce rates of smoking from 14.8% to 5% or below by 2030.
“As a GP I see first-hand the devastating effects smoking has on the health of my patients and the impact it also has on their loved ones too. I would like to say thank you to Cathy and Sue for sharing their own personal stories which I hope will inspire many others to quit smoking. It’s never too late to quit and there’s lots of support out there to help you or a loved one take your first steps on that journey.”
Cathy Hunt, 57, a mum of four from County Durham and originally from Sunderland is finally hoping to be cancer free after three rounds of surgery. She’s making a brave plea to smokers to quit, just days after having a kidney removed.
Cathy was diagnosed with lung cancer and had half a lung removed in 2015. She underwent surgery again last year when the cancer returned and has now had a kidney removed having been diagnosed with kidney cancer. She has urged smokers: “Don’t wait until it is too late – and don’t ever think like me it won’t happen to you.
“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?”
“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.
“I am just pleased to get the opportunity to share my story. if it makes just one person stop and consider the harm smoking causes not just to the individual but their families, I will be pleased. Too many people are seriously ill and dying from smoking.
“It is not easy to stop smoking, but you never want to have the Big C conversation with your loved ones. Trust me that is harder than stopping smoking.”
Sue Mountain, 57, from South Tyneside, started smoking at the age of 11 and was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer at the age of 48. She said: “I am sharing my story because I don’t want anybody else going through the journey that I went through because of smoking – or their family.”
“When I was happy. I smoked. When I was stressed, I smoked. You lie to yourself and say you love smoking, but you need the cigarette – that’s the addiction.
I spent tens of thousands of pounds and could have bought half a house or travelled the world many times over instead of getting cancer.
“My daughters’ thought they were going to lose their mam. To see your daughters go through hell because of something that you’ve done was so hard. I think I have probably spent over £100,000 on cigarettes… I could have bought half a house with that or seen the world instead of getting cancer.
“To tell your family you have cancer because of smoking and to see the shock and the worry on their faces is so hard. My voice has never been the same since radiotherapy. But I’m fortunate, I am alive and feeling fit and I never think of going back to a cigarette. Smoking did its best to take my health and my life. Now I have taken my life back.
“I don’t want one person going through what I did. You can’t ever stop trying to quit because smoking will catch up with you sooner or later and it won’t be nice. I tried so many times to quit, but it’s worth it.”
A shocking 117,000 people have died in the North East from smoking since the year 2000.
Adult smoking has almost halved since 2005 and the North East has seen the biggest reduction in smoking since then through its collaborative approach, which has been recognised nationally.
New data shows smoking costs the North East a staggering £992.5 million each year, including:
- £102.6m a year to the NHS in smoking-related hospital admissions and primary care treatments
- £64.3m for local authorities in the North East £64.3m each year on social care for smoking-related illnesses
- £811.6m in costs to the economy through smoking-related unemployment, lost earnings and smoking-related early deaths.
Cathy’s full story
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 also 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.”
Sue’s full story
Mum of three and sea swimmer Sue Mountain, 57, from South Shields, started smoking aged 11. She underwent laser treatment aged 48 after a biopsy revealed she had laryngeal cancer in 2012. The cancer then returned in 2015 and then again in 2017 which required radiotherapy every day for four weeks.
Sue said: “When I started senior school, you were the odd one out if you didn’t smoke. You felt big and my school meal money went on cigarettes. At that age, you never think you’re going to end up addicted or how smoking is going to ruin your life.
“When I was happy. I smoked. When I was stressed, I smoked. You lie to yourself and say you love smoking but you need the cigarette – that’s the addiction. Over the years I think I probably spent over £100,000 on cigarettes… I could have bought half a house with that or seen the world instead of getting cancer.
“To tell your family you have cancer because of smoking and to see the shock and the worry on their faces is so hard. My daughters’ thought they were going to lose their mam.
“I managed to quit just before my radiotherapy started. I had five days of treatment for four weeks and it was tough. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, I had a tube down my throat for three months. I was so weak all I could do was lie on the sofa.
“My voice has never been the same since radiotherapy. But I’m fortunate, I am alive and feeling fit and I never think of going back to a cigarette. Smoking did its best to take my health and my life but now I feel like I have taken my life back.”
“I don’t want one person going through what I did. You can’t ever stop trying to quit because smoking will catch up with you sooner or later. You’ve got to keep trying to quit. It’s worth it.”
 *Independent survey of 757 smokers North East and North Cumbria, February-March 2023 by Fresh.