There’s a photograph of my mother, propped on a bookcase in the flat where my siblings and I grew up — and where she still lives — using the tip of a cigarette to set her ration book alight.

Taken on the last day of rationing in 1954 for the newspaper where she worked, it’s an unabashed celebration of freedom. And it has about it the air of careless bravado that attracts so many young people to smoking — a habit that can haunt them for years.

I’d like to be able to point to that picture and say it was that allure which kicked off my own 50 years of smoking, but it wasn’t. To be honest, I don’t remember why I started. So do most people.

However, I do know this: Smoking has been a great pleasure in my life since I started it around age 13.

Alexandra Shulman, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, has revealed she's attempting to quit smoking. Pictured: Alexandra Shulman, cigarette in hand, at a fundraiser at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1984

Alexandra Shulman has recently been diagnosed with breast carcinoma and revealed that she’s trying to quit smoking. Pictured: Alexandra Shulman, cigarette in hand, at a fundraiser at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1984

It’s only now, aged 64 and after confronting a recent breast cancer diagnosis, that I am attempting, for the first time, to call it quits. I used to think that the cost of wearing a garment was the only way to avoid getting sick. I also considered the years of pleasure I’ve had from smoking. But when you suddenly realise it’s now payback time, that bargain doesn’t look quite so attractive.

When I discovered that I was being treated for cancer, I started to smoke what I believe will be my final cigarette. My particular form of breast cancer did not respond well to hormonal therapy. I would have to avoid the months-long chemotherapy involved with this type of treatment.

It was just four weeks ago.

Between the moment I received my diagnosis and this moment, it was almost two months before I could quit smoking. My crutch was cigarettes more than ever.

While I recognized that it was best to stop immediately I just tried to take one step ahead mentally to avoid spiraling into anxiety.

It would take time to quit smoking. It wasn’t as if I had been ordered to stop by my medical team. They weren’t prescriptive when telling me what to do. They were only interested in telling me what they planned to do.

As a teenager I smoked a lot. This was before the internet. Most adults who I met smoked in the 1960s. Not our father — he abhorred everything about it. For a while, our mother had traded occasional cigarettes with a 40-a day habit.

Alexandra said her mother had exchanged occasional cigarettes for a 40-a-day habit for a few years. Pictured: Her mother Drusilla Beyfus sets her ration book alight with a cigarette

Alexandra said her mother had exchanged occasional cigarettes for a 40-a-day habit for a few years. Pictured: Her mother Drusilla Beyfus sets her ration book alight with a cigarette

She gave up in her late 30s —after puffing the entire way on a Pan Am flight from Los Angeles to London, stubbing out her fags in the small seat-side ashtray — because our father told her she smelled like a tannery. It was brutal, but it worked.

There was awareness even then that smoking wasn’t a good idea.

Friends’ parents would chatter about how, really, they should give up, flicking their elegant Dunhill lighters into action and tapping their ash into decorative ashtrays. You could mask the smell by adding Joy or Fracas to your ash, or Bay Rum aftershave. But there were always chic cigarette boxes on coffee tables for visitors, their contents as much a part of the cocktail hour ritual as the ice bucket and bottles of Gordon’s Gin and Martini.

Signing off by lighting up was a release from accountability 

Cigarettes were the canapés of the day. Cigarettes were an integral part of adult social lives, so it’s not surprising that my generation wanted to be a part.

My first cigarettes were a dark green box of St Moritz with their gold ‘By appointment to His Royal Highness The Prince of the Netherlands’ insignia.

I thought the menthol would mask the smell.

In my early years, I used to smoke a full packet of Dunhill in my bedroom with Sarah. Each of us became very sick. Although it may have deterred me from trying to smoke so many at once, I didn’t stop smoking.

Alexandra (pictured) said although her mother was relatively chilled about her smoking, her father was known to reiterate what a filthy habit smoking was

Alexandra (pictured) said although her mother was relatively chilled about her smoking, her father was known to reiterate what a filthy habit smoking was

Smoking was a common habit among us. We smoked in the lunch hours at my West London girls’ school where we could easily escape and hang out in the local side streets.

On the bus’s roof deck, we smoked. We smoked in the local hamburger restaurant; in the Rainbow Room of the Biba department store; on park benches, at open-air concerts, in boyfriends’ cars and, if we thought we could get away with it, in our homes.

There were safe houses where some parents didn’t mind us smoking, but mine was not one. Our mother was quite chilled about this, however our father was notorious for steaming into the bedroom while I puffed out from the window. He would loudly repeat what a terrible habit smoking was. All the same, there was never a time when I didn’t enjoy smoking. There was never a time when I felt the need to take a deep breath. Or when it was necessary for me to smoke to stay cool.

From the beginning, cigarettes and me were an ideal match. I enjoyed the entire experience. I was an unfaithful smoker, moving from brand to brand — driven more by association than by specific taste: the soft pack of Gauloises Disque Bleu which our Swiss au pair, Terry, smoked; the supposed French cool of Gitanes with its beautiful cobalt packaging; the gold Benson & Hedges that fitted into the heightened glam rock of the 1970s.

As fashionable as were a pair Fiorucci velvet pants, cigarettes are as important as any other style element.

The dizzy buzz that comes with the first drag is what I’m missing. 

Marlboro Light was my first choice. In the 1990’s, I switched to rolling ups. They were healthier than other options and I really enjoyed smoking them.

A few years ago I discovered a Greek brand I liked. My friend was enjoying it on holiday. As I write this, my final packet from our trip to Greece is sitting in front of me.

Everyone was aware that smoking had serious health consequences by the time I started working in 1980s. Even so, cigarettes were a low-cost option compared to the high alcohol consumption of most of my peers.

Tatler was a period when most employees smoked while at work.

Alexandra said everyone was smoking when she became editor of Vogue at the start of the Nineties, therefore there was no drama about smoking at the desk

Alexandra claimed that everybody was smoking in her time as editor of Vogue, at the beginning of Nineties. Therefore there wasn’t any drama over smoking at the desk. 

The office of the chairman of publisher Conde Nast at the time — a debonair Frenchman called Daniel Salem — was always filled with a lingering haze of smoke — sometimes enhanced with the thick, sweet aura of a cigar.

When I became editor of the company’s magazine GQ and then of Vogue at the start of the Nineties, we were all still smoking, a filled ashtray as much a part of the office scene as our Atex computers and the fax machine.

There was a time when Vogue’s big story wasn’t about who was smoking at their desk next to them, but about a disagreement over what the fragrance of a scented candle a poor, non-smoking colleague lit to fight the tobacco smell.

My 1994 pregnancy with Sam saw me quit smoking immediately. While I think I made an agreement with myself over the potential risk, my body was still not ready to accept the same fate for Sam. My womb is a safe, healthy place that I want to raise my son.

I had to quit for two months, even though my doctor diagnosed me with cancer. My crutch was cigarettes more than ever. 

But I’m afraid that within months of him being born, once I had stopped breastfeeding, I started smoking again.

Many of my contemporaries had their children in their 30s and 40s. I was not one of them.

It is likely that my smoking habits are to blame. Smoking was limited to the evening, when my little child was asleep. I also smoked fewer than four to five cigarettes every day.

The doctors were always able to tell me that I was only smoking a small amount of cigarettes, which made my concerns more serious. They believed me.

Everybody said I was lucky to be able to smoke. But, they were wrong. I controlled my smoking.

My behavior was not a sign of self-control. I just didn’t want a cigarette during the day.

Despite giving up smoking while pregnant in 1994, Alexandra said she began again after she had stopped breastfeeding. Pictured: Alexandra, with son Sam

Alexandra stated that she quit smoking during pregnancy in 1994 but she started again when she stopped breastfeeding. Alexandra with her son Sam

I didn’t smoke at work — not because I felt it was inappropriate, but simply because I never felt the desire.

To me, smoking was about getting out of my head. It was the signifier of relaxation and pleasure — a sign-off from responsibility. This was the feeling that I was dependent on, and not nicotine or tobacco.

Smoking was not a stress reliever for me.

It was the sensation of having the object between my fingertips that I loved. It was the first time I smoked a cigarette that I looked forward too, and it was in the early morning.

The dizziness of first drags was not something that I enjoyed. But, now it is something that I really miss. It means a lot.

As smoking became increasingly outlawed and unpopular, there were many nights when I wouldn’t have a single cigarette until I returned home and could light up.

At 3AM, I’d wake up in the darkness and be concerned about my lung cancer.

It was not for me to huddle outside in cold for a smoke, nor was it at Vogue.

In fact, it would not be surprising to find that many guests cared less about what they could smoke as much as they did about food. But for me, that last one or two before bed — they were non-negotiable. My home was always a smoke free house. Everybody is invited to smoke, and my son became a smoker as well.

In recent years when people came to dinner and I lit up, I noticed that at least half the party would cadge one or two cigarettes off me, saying how much they missed them, taking deep drags with dramatic pleasure — rather as though it was some exotic substance they were inhaling instead of a Marlboro Light.

The other half would behave as all reformed evangelists do and chastise me with a patronising ‘I can’t believe you’re still smoking’ line that made me want to blow my smoke straight into their face. After all, it was my home. It was my house, so I could do what I wanted.

Alexandra said months of Covid-19 have been bad for her smoking, as she increased her intake while binge-watching television. Pictured: Alexandra with Anna Wintour

Alexandra said months of Covid-19 have been bad for her smoking, as she increased her intake while binge-watching television. Photo: Alexandra and Anna Wintour 

Yet, even with such smug behavior, my constant fear was that I could contract lung cancer. Not breast. And that if I did, it would be no one’s fault but my own.

That thought was usually the spear-carrier of a subsequent platoon anxiety when I woke up in the darkness that is 3 am.

Then, lying in bed, I would promise myself that I’d think about giving up (note: ‘think’) in the morning. Perhaps I need to book a lung exam.

However, I found myself lighting the first of my day again by evening’s end. It didn’t seem at that point, away from insomniac night anxiety, so very terrible to have a few cigarettes along with the wine that is also my great evening pleasure. Even without wine.

It is important to mention that the months I was on Covid-19 were bad for me. Before the pandemic, we would so often spend evenings out where you couldn’t smoke, so there were weeks when I smoked very little. Night after night I was at home, chatting around the table and watching endless television as I could smoke as much or as little as I liked. 

My 4 or 5 was increasing to 7 or 8 depending on how many episodes were being binge-watched.

So now having recently had a lumpectomy and receiving treatment to prevent recurrence of the cancer, I’ve realised something has to change and I am making my first real attempt to quit. Or at least move to Plan B — the exchange of cigarettes for vapes.

Alexandra (pictured) admits that she doesn't feel as though she has reached the rock bottom that is sometimes needed to quit any addiction

Alexandra (pictured), admits she does not feel like she’s reached rock bottom, which is often necessary to kick any kind of addiction. 

When I told a smoking lifer of my decision to try vaping the other day, she replied scornfully: ‘Aren’t smoking and vaping completely different things? Then I vape, and then I snort a cigarette. You don’t swap one for the other.’ And she’s right. Vaping has none of the appeal of smoking other than satisfying an oral fixation — similar, I suppose, to a baby and its dummy.

The vapes are ugly, there is no hit and the smoke has a slight metallic taste.

But I can’t contemplate the idea of there being nothing that signifies that end-of-day, sign-off pleasure that, for some reason I can’t for the life of me understand, is conjured up by blowing smoke out of my mouth.

I can’t pretend I feel hugely optimistic about my ability to abandon cigarettes for good, but I am really trying.

Deep down I don’t feel as though I have reached the rock bottom that is sometimes needed to quit any addiction. But if a cancer diagnosis isn’t enough, what would be?

Although I’ve been fortunate to have avoided the brutal chemotherapy or mastectomy that was required for breast cancer, I still got it.

This morning, I mentioned to my partner, David, who gave up smoking 25 years ago, that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able stick to it.

‘Don’t laugh in the face of the gods, who’ve been nice to you,’ was his stern and rather compelling reply.

I’d very much like to keep those gods on my side.