It was three years ago this week that a doctor told me I had lung cancer.
I needed a cigarette.
Smoking had been my one true friend for more than 46 years.
It had soothed my jangled nerves and given me peace.
It was the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.
It was the crutch that helped me deal with all the ups and downs of life. Now, I was being told it was killing me.
Plenty of warning
I remember walking home from school one day in 1964, laughing and burning holes with my cigarette into a flier about the surgeon general’s report that linked smoking to diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema. I was 13 and already a smoker.
My parents tried very hard to make me stop. It was a huge bone of contention between my father and me. I was with him when he died in 2008 at the age of 78, barely able to breathe because of the emphysema he had incurred as a result of his own smoking.
After he breathed his last, I went outside for a cigarette and, through tears, I joked with myself that I had won. He’d never been able to stop me from smoking.
Oh, I had tried to quit many times. The first was in 1984. Lasted two weeks.
Over the years I tried everything from prayer to hypnosis, Chantix to Wellbutrin. There were nicotine patches and gum. The longest I could get was about six months.
Some life event, trauma or distress would set me off, and I would go back to smoking.
So in April 2010, when the doctors said I had Stage III-B cancer, that it was inoperable, that the five-year survival rate was 15 to 20 percent, my natural response was to want to suck down cigarette after cigarette.
But they also told me smoking would reduce the effectiveness of the radiation and chemotherapy they had planned as a course of treatment.
“What will happen if I keep on smoking?” I asked the oncologist, Dr. James W. Orcutt.
It would be useless to treat me if I didn’t quit, he said.
I realized I could not look my loving wife or all the other people who love me in the eye and say I was going to choose smoking over staying alive.
So I quit.
It hasn’t been easy. For more than a year, I kept craving cigarettes. When I would stand next to a smoker, I would sometimes fantasize about sucking his or her clothes to get the taste of tobacco in my mouth. Of course, I never did that. I kept those thoughts to myself too.
At about the two-year mark, I started enjoying being a non-smoker.
I have come to realize that it feels better to NOT smoke. My clothes don’t stink. My breath is fresher. All of you non-smokers had the right idea all along.
Why write now?
Thanks to the mercy of a loving God, the prayers of many people, the generous sick leave policy of my employer, and the skill and caring ministrations of the doctors and staff who treated me, the cancer that was in my body has responded favorably to treatment.
It isn’t totally gone, but it is inactive. Doctors tell me I am in “progression-free survival.”
Now I know I haven’t hit the five-year mark, and I know that this tumor, or some other form of cancer, could quickly re-emerge and radically change the quality of my life.
And I also know that many, many of you heeded the warnings about smoking a long time ago and either never took it up or quit when you were young.
I am writing not to brag about finally quitting a bad habit I never should have started, but to say that if you have been diagnosed with cancer, quitting is a very good idea that will pay off in more ways than just abetting your treatment.
If you are still smoking and you don’t have cancer yet, think about that word, “yet,” and think about stopping now.
David W. MacDougall is a web editor with The Post and Courier . Contact him at 937-5655 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.