I have terminal lung cancer, bladder cancer, COPD, CHF and Diabetes, all (except Diabetes) likely caused by cigarette smoking, but I’m told I don’t “look” sick at all.
With the exception of a 1995 bout with lung cancer, which I arrogantly ignored, I’ve had no involvement with a cancer diagnosis until 2009, after I had quit smoking.
I smoked for about 45 years. From the time I was about 12 or 13 years old in 1962, 1963 until January, 2008. For the first few years smoking was pleasurable. It was “cool” to smoke. Then it became a habit and then a serious addiction that I couldn’t control. Then it became embarrassing and I was ashamed that I smoked.
My mother passed away in 1969, at the age of 49, from lung cancer, my brother in 2013 at the age of 52. Both smoked. I never associated my mother’s smoking with her death in the 26 year period between her death and my cancer diagnosis. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995 the mental wall I had built between cancer and smoking was 3 meters high and a meter thick. I simply did not associate cancer with smoking. I think deep in my heart I knew the difference, but my drug altered brain wouldn’t let me see the truth. Yes, I said my drug altered brain – nicotine is a drug that altered my thought processes.
I probably quit smoking several times in the 60’s, dozens of times in the 70’s and 80’, and several dozens of times in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but really never for more than a few days. I “started to quit” smoking in earnest around 1985. It would take me more than 20 years to finally slay that dragon. My family, friends and doctors were supportive when I tried to quit, but I think they knew that I would fail, so I stopped telling anyone that I was trying to quit because I didn’t want them to know that I failed again.
To know just how strong the urge to smoke is, or how tough the nicotine addiction is to break, I need to tell you a bit more about me. In my late teens, 20’s and early 30’s, before my body started to feel the ravages and serious side effects of smoking, I was pretty tough. I was 1.83 meters tall and weighed 90 kilos. I played rugby and football in university. I could run 8 kilometers in less than 30 minutes with a 20 kilo backpack. I jumped out of perfectly good airplanes 10,000 meters high - on purpose. I did a tour of duty in Vietnam. I have been stabbed, shot and beaten. None of my strengths mattered to a cigarette and my desire to quit. I became a weakling for want of a cigarette.
I never smoked in my house because in the back of my mind I think knew the effects of second hand smoke, so outside I went. It didn’t matter where or when, all that mattered was the nicotine. In Kuwait at +45 C, in Moscow at -45 C, in rainstorms, in hurricanes and in blinding snowstorms, out I went for a smoke. One night at 2 AM, I woke and went outside in a snowstorm, -20 C, snow blowing around me, in a housecoat and bedroom slippers standing in snow past my knees, wind gusting to 80 kilometers per hour, my housecoat blowing out behind me like Superman’s cape, naked as the day I was born underneath it. Still, I stood 5 minutes in that weather, my toes and fingers were blue, but I waited until I finished my cigarette. I felt good because I had a smoke.
Much worse than my own health is when I lashed out verbally at my loved ones because they asked you to do something that would take 5 minutes, because you haven’t had a cigarette in 15 minutes and a 5 more minute wait would be agony.
That’s how strong the addiction is.
In 1995 I was diagnosed with lung cancer. A pie slice portion of my lower right lobe was removed. It happened very fast – x-ray on Wednesday, diagnosed on Thursday morning, met with the surgeon Thursday afternoon, in the hospital Sunday morning, operated on Monday morning at 8:00 AM. I woke up sometime Monday afternoon. I remember being surprised that my back was sore and not my front. Who would have thought that a lung operation took place from the back? I hate hospitals, and I immediately started pushing to be released. The following Saturday morning I was released and I was told to do nothing for a couple of weeks. Sunday morning I painted my office. I hadn’t had a cigarette in almost 10 days and I thought maybe, just maybe, I had beaten the habit for good. This would be one of the longest times I had gone without a cigarette. The following Tuesday, 13 days after my diagnosis, while driving from Sydney to Dartmouth for a meeting I gave into temptation and bought a package of cigarettes in St. Peters and smoked a half dozen before I got to Antigonish, a distance of about 100 km. Disgusted with myself I threw the cigarettes and matches away in Antigonish. I also threw away my car cigarette lighters and all the ash trays. I drove to New Glasgow, about 50 kilometers, and bought another pack of cigarettes. The dragon won. I never did replace the ash trays or lighters in my Cadillac.
For about 5 years I went for checkups with the thoracic surgeon that did my lung operation. At first they were weekly, then bi-weekly, then monthly, every 3 months, 6 months and yearly. Often the doctor would have one or two younger residents with him. Sometime in late 1995 at one of my checkups I overheard a conversation from behind a curtain. A young resident said to my surgeon“… but the type of cancer he has isn’t caused by smoking”. The surgeon replied “Shh, we don’t want him to know that”. The conversation may well have been a little bit different, but what I heard was that I could still smoke because my cancer wasn’t caused by smoking. It would be another 5 years before I even thought of quitting again. So, health care people – be careful what you say and when you say it – you never know who might be listening.
I finally managed to quit smoking in January, 2008.
Around the end of 2009 I was again diagnosed with lung cancer. I’m told it’s in the upper right lobe this time, roughly an oval about 2.5 cm long. In 2010 the surgeon told me that it’s terminal, and that in his estimation I had 3 to 5 years to live. In 2013 a second doctor told me that the cancer is still terminal, but he could not tell me how long I would live with it. In October, 2014 I was advised that the cancer is still there, still terminal, but good news, it hadn’t grown in the last year. My next diagnosis after that was 2 years later, in September 2016. A thoracic surgeon looked at some week old x-rays and told me that it has grown a few millimeters from the last x-rays 2 years ago, which he said was good, but the bad news was that it has now travelled into my lymph nodes and there’s a small 2 mm spot in my right lung that he will watch closely. He also pointed out to me that what was terminal 7 years ago may not be terminal today. So, as of today, I’m living my life like I have no expiry date stamped on my forehead.
On the plus side, I am in the 17% of people diagnosed with terminal cancer that survive in excess of 5 years. I’m working on 8 years now and hope to break the record. I often think of the other 83%. I know the fight they bravely fought, mostly in silence, including my mother and my 52 year old brother.
I’ve never really been “treated” for this lung cancer. A couple of consultations with Doctors that looked at some x-rays and MRI’s or CT Scans and then told me I have terminal cancer. A biopsy attempt failed after half dozen tries and the area became too bloody to see the tumor on the scanner. I’ve never had chemotherapy or radiation and in all honesty both scare the dickens out of me. I’m told one of the side effects of chemo and radiation is that you lose your hair. That’s really scary. Just imagine how I would look bald.
Another lingering effect of a cigarette is bladder cancer, diagnosed about 4 or 5 years ago. I have a cystoscopy every 3 months and scrapings every 9 months or so when tumors are found. To round out the other gifts a cigarette gave me I would need to mention COPD, CHF and Diabetes. Surprisingly, I think the COPD will kill me long before the cancer matures. Some days I just can’t breathe. Thanks to smoking, I have to suffocate in my own body for the next few years.
To quit smoking I tried everything under the sun: patches, gums, pills, cold turkey, hypnosis and acupuncture. Nothing worked for me. On my own I discovered a pill named Champix. I think I saw an ad on an American TV channel and the list of potential side effects was at least 2 minutes long, which scared me a bit, but I thought to myself, why not? I’ve tried every other method to quit smoking, so I may as well try that too, and besides, the side effects can’t be any worse than smoking a cigarette.
Upon checking, I discovered that Champix was available in Canada with a prescription, which my doctor gladly wrote for me, and as a bonus, it was also covered under my company medical plan. I started taking those tablets around October, 2008 and I continued to smoke. After several months the “desire” to smoke wasn’t there anymore and one day in January 2009 I put them down and never picked up a cigarette again. I had slain the dragon.
One Word to describe survivorship: Glorious