Hard-hitting warnings from ex-smokers

Posted on in Health improvement

For some smokers in their 30s and 40s, the thought of cancer or COPD is often dismissed as a risk that feels years away…

But now two former smokers and cancer survivors are making personal appeals in a graphic quit smoking campaign that urges smokers to quit and reduce their risk – and never assume it won’t happen to them.

Maggie Bratton was diagnosed with mouth cancer at the age of just 45, resulting in an operation to remove the roof of her mouth. After undergoing an operation to remove the roof of her mouth, Maggie has to wear an obturator – a piece of plastic which enables her to eat and speak. Watch Maggie’s TV advert and her personal plea.

And Tony Osborne was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer when he was 52. Surgeons removed much of the inside of Tony’s neck, including his voice box, leaving him with a stoma (hole) in his throat through which he had to learn to breathe and talk again. Watch Tony’s TV advert and his personal plea.

The campaign, from Fresh, is supported by Cancer Research UK. With smoking causing 14.7% of new cancer cases and 27% of all cancer deaths in England, it is estimated that smoking causes 44,100 new cases of cancer and over 36,600 deaths from cancer a year.

Overall in England, there were 77,900 deaths attributable to smoking in 2016 from cancer and other diseases including COPD, heart disease and stroke.

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh, said: “Tony and Maggie are two incredibly brave people who want their experiences of smoking to be heard. They don’t want other people to have to go through the pain and the life-limiting surgery that they went through at a relatively young age.

“Tony and Maggie’s stories do not make comfortable viewing, but campaigns are one of the most powerful ways to encourage people to stop and young people not to start in the first place. In all our research with smokers, we know that hard hitting campaigns like this are extremely impactful to trigger quit attempts.

“Although most smokers have heard of lung cancer, smoking causes 16 types of cancer, as well as heart disease, COPD, stroke, dementia and diabetes.  Every clinician, GP and nurse is in a unique position to help stop more people like Maggie and Tony being diagnosed in the future.”

Tony Osbourne’s surgeon and consultant is Mr Shane Lester, ENT Head and Neck Surgeon, South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, based at The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough. He said: “A smoker’s risk of having laryngeal cancer is much higher than if you had never smoked at all. If you haven’t got cancer then stopping smoking can help prevent you getting cancer. For cancer patients, the chances of successful treatment are much better with stopping smoking.

“With head and neck cancer this can be very visible and surgery can change how your face moves, how you might eat or how you might speak. Even patients who get through everything and are out of surveillance still have to live with those side effects of it.

“Sometimes people blame themselves, but lots of people who smoke started when they were kids, when the risks of smoking weren’t known and they got addicted. It’s far more healthy to look forward, to get help to stop smoking, and look forward to the health benefits of that.”

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “Campaigns like these play a key role in reminding smokers why it is important to quit sooner rather than later. This campaign is particularly powerful because it features real people.

“Smoking is still the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer in the world. It causes over a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK and 3 in 20 cancer cases. There are more than 70 chemicals in tobacco smoke that have been found to cause cancer, and whether you smoke cigarettes or roll ups, the risks are the same.

“Stopping smoking can greatly reduce the risk of smoking-related cancers, compared to continuing to smoke, and the earlier you stop the better. The most effective way to stop smoking is with the medication and support that is available from free local Stop Smoking Services. But for people who’ve tried to quit before, or don’t want to use other aids, e-cigarettes could be another option.”

Dr Tony Branson, Clinical Lead for the Northern Cancer Alliance, said: “Every cigarette pumps harmful chemicals into the lungs, and around the body. Many of these are known to damage DNA, stick to cells, harm cell repair and cause cancer.

“Although treatment for many cancers has improved enormously, many patients find it hard to speak clearly, swallow, eat or function normally again.

“Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your health and it is crucial to stop for good as soon as possible.”

North East smoking rates have fallen by 44% since 2005 when 29% of North East adults smoked down to 16.2% of people in 2017 – around a quarter of a million fewer people smoking.  Recent national projections suggest national smoking rates could fall by another 1/3 by the year 2023 – which would mean only around one in ten adults smoking.

Besides lung cancer, smoking also causes cancers of the mouth, nasal cavities, pharynx and larynx, stomach, kidney, bowel, liver, pancreas, cervix, bladder and ovaries, oesophagus and ureter, as well as myeloid leukaemia. There is also some evidence that smoking could cause breast cancer.

Maggie’s story

At just 45 Maggie Bratton’s life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with mouth cancer. The mum-of-two had smoked since the age of 15 and stopped the night before she underwent surgery to remove the roof of her mouth. Now 62, Maggie lives every day with its effects and has to wear an obturator in her mouth – a piece of plastic – which enables her to eat and speak.

Maggie is also sharing her story for a hard-hitting TV campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of smoking – and the impact it has had on her life.

Maggie said: “I started smoking cigarettes when I was about 15. I just used to smoke – buy one cigarette at the shop on the way to school that type of thing. A lot of people smoked then and it was probably down to peer pressure. The risks of smoking weren’t as widely known then. There wasn’t the literature or advice back then either, so I never thought about how smoking could impact my health.

“I’ve never been affected by cancer or known anyone with cancer so I never really thought much about smoking and its link to mouth cancer, it just wasn’t something I was aware of.

“It all started when I got an abscess on my gums. I was given two lots of antibiotics and it didn’t go away, so the doctor sent me to the General Hospital but not for one second did I think it would turn out to be what it was.

“I had to go for a biopsy but I still didn’t think anything of it. I had a couple of teeth taken out and I honestly thought that was it. The day I was told I had mouth cancer I was shocked. I had never even heard of mouth cancer and I was diagnosed. I’d been a smoker but never thought it would happen to me.

“I remember when I first got home and I just thought, how do I tell my kids? My oldest son was leaving for Canada the next day and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him and my youngest son was only 13, so he didn’t really understand at his age. It was really awful to see what my kids were going through. I was only 45-years-old and they didn’t want anything to happen to me. I wanted to be around to see them grow up.

“The part of the top of my mouth was removed in surgery. The operation involved removing skin from my leg to create a new lining for my mouth and I had an obturator fitted, which basically holds my face in shape. The obturator felt like it was in my mouth and it shouldn’t be there. I can’t speak or eat without it. I’ve got it with me for the rest of my life but at least I am alive.

“I was in pain afterwards and had no feeling down the side of my mouth for a year. I had to learn to talk and eat again because everything was so different.”

Maggie, who has two grown-up sons and a grandson, still struggles to come to terms with how dramatically her life has changed as a result of her smoking.

She continued: “I still get upset when I talk about having cancer and living with its effects. It’s not an experience I would wish on anyone. I have to live with this every day knowing that it might have been prevented if I’d not smoked.

“Before the cancer I was an adamant smoker – I always had been. I never bothered trying to quit because I just thought I would make a fool of myself and fail but it changes when you get that scared.

“I remember being at the hospital the night before the surgery and I was still smoking at that stage. I went outside for a cigarette and I thought ‘what am I doing?’

“I went back in and put my clothes on and said to the nurse ‘I’m going to go home’ and she asked why and I said ‘because I can’t quit’. Thankfully, she told me to sleep on it and to think of my kids and I haven’t smoked since. I can honestly say I have never craved a cigarette since.

“If I had one message to smokers it’d be don’t wait until it’s too late. I wish I has stopped smoking sooner, or I wish I had probably never started smoking at all. Smoking isn’t worth what I have gone through.”

Tony’s story

“You don’t think about what smoking is doing to you. I should have taken notice when my father and two brothers died from lung cancer. I watched them die, that should have been enough for me to quit.”


Tony Osborne from South Bank in Middlesbrough was diagnosed with laryngeal (throat) cancer when he was 52. A former smoker, Tony had to undergo major surgery to remove much of the inside of his neck, including his voice box. Now 55, Tony breathes through an opening in his neck, known as a stoma, and talks using an artificial voice box.

Tony, who ditched tobacco for good on the day of his surgery, is sharing his story to warn others of the consequences of smoking as part of a new hard-hitting TV campaign.

He said: “I was diagnosed with throat cancer on my 52nd birthday. I was stunned – I’d always thought of myself as fit and strong. I knew about lung cancer but I had no idea what was happening to my throat. I immediately knew it was the cigarettes. I knew what had caused it, so I thought why did I do it?

“The doctor told me if I wanted to live I had to have the operation straight away, which was a huge shock as I really didn’t want to have surgery before my son’s wedding in the August.”

Tony underwent a laryngectomy, which involves removal of the larynx (voice box), separation of the airway from the mouth, nose and oesophagus, and a full neck dissection. As a result, he could no longer speak unaided and had to adapt to a new way of breathing. He stopped smoking the day he underwent surgery.

He said: “I was in hospital for nearly three weeks but was determined to get better. When you first come round from the operation you have pipes coming out of you and are laid up in the bed. I couldn’t drink any water for the first week in case it leaked into my lungs – you can’t imagine how tough that is.

“It was difficult to get used to a new way of breathing through the stoma – the hole in my neck – rather than through my mouth or nose. It affects you in so many different ways. My nose doesn’t do anything anymore, I don’t breathe through it and I have no sense of smell. I had to learn how to talk again as I now have to press down on the valve on my neck, and in order to talk I have to stop breathing.

“Eating takes me a lot longer than the average person because I’ve had so many nerves removed that I can’t move my tongue in the same way I used to. It’s a much harder process and my mouth is really sensitive now.

“Before I had this I’d run up the stairs but I can no longer do normal things like this, or walking distances. I have to be supervised when I take shower or bath as if I get water in my stoma – opening in my neck – it will go straight into my lungs and I’ll drown. I can no longer swim either which I really enjoyed.”

Tony, who provides support and advice to others going through similar procedures to his own, is now cancer-free but he will live with the lasting impacts for the rest of his life, knowing that it might have been avoided if he’d not smoked.

“I used to enjoy smoking, but you don’t think about what it is doing to you. I should have taken notice when my father and two brothers died from lung cancer. I watched them die, that should have been enough for me to quit.

“I’d urge other smokers to stop now. Don’t let smoking ruin your life.”