It’s the Great American Smokeout, We need to do a better job helping people quit smoking, and encouraging others not to start.
I wish I knew the first time my sister Sue picked up a cigarette. Most hard-core nicotine addicts begin smoking in junior or senior high school, but my athletically-talented sister seemed far too swept up with playing basketball and field hockey to develop such a nasty habit.
I do remember the first time I started smoking because it was with her. She and my brother-in-law were driving me to a mixer at my college. I was 19 and had just had an argument with my mother. Without even asking, I pulled out one of her Kent’s and lit up unapologetically. She didn’t seem happy about it but she didn’t say stop.
My cigarette of choice was Benson & Hedges 100s. You could buy a pack then for 75 cents, so I didn’t think much about filling up my ashtrays with half-filled cigarettes in college and graduate school. I finally quit 10 years later when the newspaper where I worked instituted a no smoking policy in the month of January. It was a good resolution to start off the New Year, and I really didn’t like smoking in the cold.
My sister, unfortunately, did not follow this path and continued to smoke for 40 years. There were things she loved a lot more. My brother-in-law, the elementary school classes she lovingly nurtured for 30+ years, her teacher’s union, Jodi Picoult, the television show Survivor, gardening, the Jersey Shore, Yankees baseball and Army football. But nicotine was now an integral part of her life, and if she made any serious attempts to quit I was unaware. She hated being judged and after a while I stopped asking her to give up the habit, realizing that scolding was not helpful.
Ten years ago she retired from teaching and filled her life with projects from her wish list. She started a crafts business. She and my brother-in-law bought a little studio apartment just steps from the beach. She built family scrapbooks, designed gardens and crocheted blankets.
Smoking was never far from her mind. She would burrow her hand in her grey purse in search of a crumpled pack and draw on a cigarette while watering the garden. When we were out at dinner she would always say, with a flourish, that she was “taking her 10 minute union break” and head outside for a smoke. She must have been running on sheer adrenaline because the thinner she got the faster she moved, racing my father’s wheel-chair bound body so he wouldn’t miss the Fourth of July Parade, and lugging around huge bags of mulch.
I guess I knew things wouldn’t end well, but it still was a shock when a month after she finally took her last puff, she went for a lung X-ray. Oncologists tried to arrest the tumors spreading in both her lungs with radiation and immunotherapy drugs, but in less than a year she was dead of Stage Four lung cancer. She was 66.
The last time I saw her, about two weeks before she died, she was on oxygen. Walking to the bathroom exhausted her. Most of her teeth were gone. It was hard to reconcile this picture with the girl who pushed me on a bicycle coaxing me to ride solo for the first time.
My husband reminds me that smoking is an addiction as harsh as any other, that no one inflicts this kind of damage to their body because they enjoy smoking. They do it because it’s too hard to stop.
We have innovative drugs to treat lung cancer and survival rates are longer. But lung cancer is still a death trap and it’s a horrible way to die