I lost my father to lung cancer last year. He was 83 when he was diagnosed with late-stage disease, and died three weeks later. Although he lived past the average age for men in the United States, he likely would have had more years to spend time with his children, grandchildren, and friends if he hadn’t smoked cigarettes.
My father smoked from his teens until around 60. He didn’t quit for himself; he did it to support his partner, who desperately needed to quit because of her own health issues. Unfortunately, it was not soon enough to prevent his tobacco use from having profound effects on his health and quality of life. In his late 60s, he was treated for a smoking-related head and neck cancer of the salivary gland. He had a triple bypass in his 70s due to heart disease, which also was smoking-related. Recovery from open-heart surgery is especially difficult for seniors. My father suffered from frightening ICU psychosis after surgery.
Smoking had an emotional toll on him, too. At least twice a year, my father apologized for trapping my siblings and me in smoked filled-cars when we were little. He’d say he didn’t know any better, but he still got visibly upset. After he was diagnosed with his first cancer, he was in shock, and told me with disbelief that “my people are heart disease people, not cancer people.”
This morning I stopped for coffee and saw a grey-haired man sitting a table reading his newspaper, which my father also liked to do. In addition to the paper, he had a cup of coffee and bottle of Ensure, the nutritional supplement that my father also used to drink to help boost his health and weight. He even looked like my father; he sported a ring of messy hair under a rumpled baseball cap. I couldn’t help tearing up at the resemblance, and the possibility that my father would still be alive if he hadn’t smoked. I wished that man in the coffee man well in my head, and thought, “we are all cancer people.”
Randi Kaufman, DrPH
LCP Assistant Director, LSU School of Public Health Assistant Professor