Your Body

March 22, 2009

This June, Andee Scott will celebrate her second year of quitting smoking. After a cervical cancer scare, the Austin-based dancer felt she needed to give up the pack-a-day habit she’d had since college. “I was frightened,” she says. “Up until then, I suffered from the fallacy that I’m a dancer, know my body well, and nothing bad will ever happen to me.”  


By now, the stats are familiar. Research has shown that smoking claims some 440,000 lives each year. But there are additional concerns for dancers. High levels of carbon monoxide in a smoker’s blood impair the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to cells. “No one can dance 100 percent full out as a smoker,” says Richard Jackson, M.D., an internist with the Center for Performing Arts Medicine at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. “There’s a tremendous amount of damage to your arteries. And we know that smoking retards the ability to heal wounds and breaks by almost 30 percent.”


Quitting seems like a no-brainer. But in the dance world, which long has tolerated smoking, it can be difficult. Luckily there are many more ways to quit now than going cold turkey. Both Jackson and Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., an expert on smoking cessation at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, single out the growing success of behavior changes in combination with prescription medications.


Ending addiction doesn’t mean only ending dependence on nicotine; you also have to alter the activities that you couple with smoking, which are often a quitter’s downfall. “Know your triggers and work out a plan to cope with every single one. For instance, if you always have coffee with a cigarette, switch to tea,” says Gritz. In many cases, over-the-counter nicotine replacement products, such as gum or the patch, work best when you cut down on smoking first, and need a little help to get over the final hump. “You still have to set a quit date,” she says.


Precription medications can help when behavior modification and nicotine replacement fall short. Zyban often works for dancers because, unlike similar medications, there’s rarely weight gain. Chantix, a new and controversial drug, blocks the nicotine receptors, and boasts a higher success rate than other drugs. “Nightmares and nausea are common side effects, but I generally find athletes and dancers tolerate Chantix well,” says Jackson. However, he cautions that, as with any prescription drug, you need to be under the care of a physician.


Mark Morris Dance Group’s Amber Darragh started smoking while at Juilliard. “Breaks were my social time, when I could finally leave the building and relax, and many of my friends also smoked,” says Darragh, 31, who quit for good two years ago and now uses yoga to relax. “Smoking also calmed my adrenaline from performing.”


Scott and Darragh quit by changing their behavior. “Every time I felt like having a cigarette, I had a cup of detox tea or took a hot bath instead,” Scott says.


Recent research has shown that most successful quitters have tried several times. “Quitting is a process,” says Gritz. “Each time you try, you get better at it.” Darragh is convinced that being a dancer helped her quit. “We are very strong-willed and self-disciplined people,” she says. “Once quitting became something I really wanted to do, it wasn’t so hard.”


For Scott, quitting led to a deeper shift. “Smoking is such a deadener of feeling, taste, and emotion. After I quit, I felt light, more open and positive,” she says. “And best of all, I’m more at ease with the world, all of which translates into my dancing.”


Nancy Wozny is a dance writer in Houston, TX.


Photo illustration: Hanna Varady; photo: istock