Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanks for Not Smoking

My friend Tony has been diagnosed with lung cancer. For the past few months he’s undergone a series of tests. Last weekend he left a message on my voicemail. “The doctor told me that all the tests are positive for cancer of the lung. So that’s the story.”

I cried that night and much of the next day. Tony is 86. He’s my neighbor in the summer. He lives in a little red house that overlooks the water. I love him.

He’s no ordinary guy. He’s a Marine and a former mail carrier. He still walks a few miles a day for exercise – rain or shine. In the summer he drags his heavy aluminum boat through the sand near his house into the water, and off he goes to pull his lobster traps.

Tony is 5’8” and in fighting-good shape. He whips those heavy lobster pots over the side of the boat like they’re made of air.

The day after Tony left the message, he told me the doctor said his cancer was likely a result of his cigarette smoking. “I told him I hadn’t smoked for 45 years,” Tony said.“Not since I was in the service.”

Some days during the summer I sit with him in his screened porch. He knows and keeps my secrets. Sometimes he cooks his lobsters in big pots on the stove in the porch, and we don’t talk. I just like being with him.

My father had his voice box removed, 30 years ago, as a result of cancer. He learned a new way to talk, by burping his words. Every time he saw kids smoking, whether he knew them or not, he’d say with his burping voice, “You want this to happen to you? Quit smoking!”

Young people who smoke tell me they’ll eventually quit. They say they hear it takes just a few years for the lungs to return to normal. If I told young smokers about Tony, they’d say, “But he’s 86 years old, inferring that his life was nearly over anyway.

Tony loves life, as much today as he did when he was a young Marine. He adores his wife and family. He has hundreds more lobsters to pull from the sea. We’re all heartsick.

Maybe cigarettes contributed to Tony’s cancer. Maybe not. But I wish that kids who choose to smoke could understand that with every drag of the cigarette, they’re hurting themselves and the people around them. The words ”you have cancer” are devastating to the person who’s sick and to those who love him.

Related columns for young people
Cigarettes: Quit for Life

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