March 9th, 2012
07:38 AM ET

Smoker trades one addiction for another

Editor's Note: Rick Morris is a web developer and volunteer firefighter from Canton, North Carolina. He is one of seven CNN viewers selected to be a part of the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge program. Each athlete receives all the tools necessary to train for and compete in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon this September.

October 1, 2001, was the day my father took his last breath.

A smoker for 50 years, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in April that year. I recall how he continued to smoke cigarettes while pushing an oxygen trolley around his kitchen. When it became clear his final ride to the Haywood County Hospital was at hand, he reached for one last smoke.

The irony was that his brand was “Lucky Strikes." There was nothing lucky about a father of eight whose last days would come during his 63 year of life.

“Do you regret that you smoked all your life, Dad?” I asked.

“On the contrary, son,” he said without hesitation, “I enjoyed each and every one.”

A short time later, he accepted a pill and a cup of water, gave us all hugs and said he loved us. It took about five more minutes for him to make the trip to the other side. It was truly one of the worst things anyone should ever witness.

At the time, I had been smoking myself for about three years (I started when I was 29). And since I had been inside the hospital for several hours, I was “nickin” for my next smoke.

Before I could get to the elevator, I was approached by a young lady asking me for approval of my father's organ donation. I knew he was a registered donor and had no issues with approving the request. As I signed the paper, I discovered his corneas were the only organs undamaged and available for donation.

I quickly worked my way down to the lobby and then out front where I promptly lit up.

Such scenarios, for lack of a better term, happen daily across America and the world. The question I kept asking myself was, “How can I continue smoking after seeing that?”

In fact, I asked myself that for another 10 years. Apparently, witnessing my father's premature death due to lung cancer coming as a result from smoking did little to influence me to stop smoking myself. Why? Obviously, I had placed the enjoyment of smoking above all else. No regard for my personal health. No regard for my family's health. No regard for anything detrimental from smoking.

During the 10 years following my father's death I forced myself to quit. Actually, I tried five creative ways to quit and succeeded each time.

But, I never remained smoke free. So, what makes me think this time around is going to be any different?

Well, for starters, I just know it. Honestly, I probably have an edge on just about anyone else who is trying to quit, being that I'm a member of the CNN Fit Nation team this year. The new exercise regime and support coming from everyone involved with my training for the 2012 Nautica Malibu Triathlon has been keeping me pretty busy.

So, I've learned to replace smoking with exercise, among other things...

About five weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to commit to becoming and staying smoke free during an interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on national television. After I did that, I realized that there would be no going back this time around. How would I be able to face myself, or the rest of America, should I fail.

So, that's a very important advantage. But, more importantly, this time I've become educated.

Yeah, I went to one of those “useless smoking cessation classes." Well, that's what I thought of it in the past. You know, “My name is Rick, and I'm a smoker”... “Hi Rick.” It was nothing like that. It was more of returning to high-school for one day a week than anything else.

Called the “Freedom from Smoking” program, I can tell you that if you want to quit - and I mean really want to quit - you gotta get involved with this program. I don't care if you are 15 or 60, you are going to discover exactly why you smoke, why you have continued smoking regardless of how many friends and loved ones have succumbed to cancer, and how to challenge yourself with replacement activities.

Moreover, I believe you will find the one thing that will work for you in your endeavor to quit and stay quit.

For example, after quitting I replaced my urges with other things I find enjoyable. I would listen to some '80s music, chew some gum, eat a piece of candy or work the Rubik's Cube. Probably the best thing I learned from my teacher, Kathy Keogh, is that the urges, when they appear, last no more than about five minutes.

By replacing that five minutes with an activity I enjoy, I get through it.

But, I have to tell you that the most enjoyable replacement activity is bringing physical pain to my body. I'm talking about exercise.

Remember when you had the energy to do things? Any 'ol thing? Remember how you used to run, or bike, or swim or lift weights? Remember how you played kick-the-can all day long? Or went cow-tipping and could actually outrun the bull? Or dragged the car hood back up the snowy hill?

Well, I won't go into my childhood heritage too much here but exercise is exactly what you want to incorporate as you finally commit to becoming smoke free.

I've been exercising regularly for the past couple months and I feel great. I really feel great. It seems like I'm cleansing all the poisons from my body. I'm starting to notice the power of my lungs returning. I'm working through the creakiness of my bones as they heal. I actually sleep through the night.

I can go on and on telling you how well life is becoming for me as a non-smoker. But, I'm sure you'll just grow tired of that.

So, what I'm going to do is close with this challenge: If you have tried to quit smoking and have failed, I say congrats to you. At least you have tried. If you want to quit smoking and succeed, you need to get enrolled in a Freedom from Smoking class. I'm confident you are going to discover something in there that will help you achieve your goal of quitting. I know I have.

Another irony for you - my smoking cessation class was at the MedWest Hospital, formally the Haywood County Hospital, where my father passed a decade earlier.

Honestly, I'm not a person of the cloth, but during this journey, I'm certain he is nearby. That's gotta count for something.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.