An old friend is worried about his son who recently started smoking. Although I barely know the son, I do know what my friend’s feeling. It’s incredibly frustrating to see your kids do something stupid–and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Kids dig in with real gusto when they’re debating their parents about something like this. I was asked to write the young man a note. I hope it helps him and I’m posting it here with only small changes on the chance that maybe it could help someone else.
We’ve met once or twice over the years. I worked with your mom and dad a long time ago at The Martin Agency in Richmond. If you think your dad’s crazy now, you should have seen him then.
Of course, being crazy is one of the privileges of being young. Hell, it might even be one of the obligations of being young. If I could live some of my early years over again, I guarantee I’d be at least a little crazier than I was.
But I hope I wouldn’t have been stupider. There’s a difference we all understand between crazy and stupid. Crazy is a tattoo. Stupid is a cigarette. I personally don’t understand why anyone would get a tattoo; I bet most of our tattooed brothers and sisters regret the decision they made back when they were young (crazy) and drunk (crazy.) But a tattoo is a crazy they can live with.
My dad started smoking in the pre World War II days when all the young guys were doing it. Three packs a day. As much as he loved the taste of the Camels and Kents he smoked, he came to hate the habit. It made him quit the sport he loved (tennis) and it undoubtedly hastened his death in the mid ’80s. He tried to quit many times. But a 3-pack-a-day habit developed over many years doesn’t go away easily.
He didn’t live to know that the second-hand smoke he left in his wake was almost certainly a big reason his only son—a lifelong nonsmoker—developed lung cancer. I’ve had radical surgery to remove a lung. I’ve been through seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy programs—half of which kept me sick most of the time. A collapsed lung sent me to the hospital for a week. I’ve lived through three or four different radiation programs. I’ve been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. I’ve spent an entire summer in an American Cancer Society Hope Lodge while undergoing various treatments. I’ve been told that my cancer has spread to my pancreas. To my liver. To my brain. I take 14 or 15 doses of medicine every morning, mostly pills, but also injections and creams. I take half that many again at night. And about a half a dozen during the day. Three times a day I do a horrible tasting, 12-minute nebulizer breathing routine. I spend almost all my time hooked up to an oxygen machine. I’m going to see an ophthalmologist in a couple hours because my vision’s gotten a little weird lately.
I’ve had to live with the public humiliations and indignities that go with this serious disease. There have been times when I can’t allow myself to go too far away from the bathroom. A couple of times I’ve coughed up a little blood. My hands shake sometimes; my wife or my sister have had to cut up food for me a couple of times. One night while dining with friends at a very nice restaurant I repeatedly threw up some strange kind of phlegm on my plateful of food. I’ve listened to the lies friends told me about how good I look when my hair has thinned away and my face has puffed up. I’ve found out too late at times that I’m not strong enough to climb even one or two stairs. I’ve given up a number of things I loved: diving, skiing, foreign travel. I often cancel visits with friends because I’m just not up to it.
Several times I’ve had to tell my wife and my sons the statistics for how long I have before I would be expected to die. I’ve had to say goodby to family and friends I thought I’d never see again. Lately, it’s become hard to eat many solid foods: my chest feels clogged, my breathing becomes labored, my eyes water uncontrollably.
All that said, I know how lucky I am. While I often feel sickly and uncomfortable, I’ve rarely felt much pain. And, amazingly and against all odds, even though I’ve had lung cancer for at least 18 years, I’m still alive. I don’t usually feel great, but I’m still able to love my life. And I do.
Increasing your odds of getting cancer is stupid. When my dad’s generation of young men—the “greatest generation”–started smoking, they didn’t know what we know now. They thought smoking made them look more sophisticated, more mature. When young people start smoking now, they just look young and stupid. That’s what everyone says. “Look at those kids lighting up.” “Oh, they’re so young.” “So stupid.”
The only good news I have for you right now is this: recent research confirms that it’s easier to quit the habit now, when it’s still relatively new. Quit. Don’t just try to quit, quit. Make your mom or dad a serious $1000 bet that you won’t smoke at all for the next year. Do something crazy a year from now with the money you win. Just don’t do anything stupid.
You don’t really know me, but I really care about what you do here. If you do quit now—and stay off the tobacco for a year—my wife Ginny and I will also give you $1000 to go crazy with. She’s cc’d here because you might have to give her the good news about the money she owes you after I’m gone. Every day is a gift for me now; cancer is a murderous bitch.
Please let me know your decision.
Afterword: I got a note from WordPress that I apparently hit the “Liked” button on this posting. “You’re so vain,” the note said. “You probably think this posting’s about you.”