June 24, 2002
Losing a battle to cigarettes
by Judy Shepps Battle
Sometimes a statistic is more than just an impersonal number.
Recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that approximately 440,000 people die annually from diseases related to cigarette smoking. These adult men and women smokers, on average, reduced their time on earth by 13.2 and 14.5 years, respectively, because they smoked.
On May 23, these abstract numbers became sadly real when my ex-husband Ñ father of our three adult children, and grandfather to a toddler Ñ died of lung cancer.
Jim was a lifelong smoker. For more than six decades he smoked two to three packs of cigarettes each day. It was only after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer that he quit the habit. It was too late. He died three months later.
We had become friends after the animosity of the divorce faded, and I witnessed the symptoms leading to his diagnosis and the fierce pain that accompanied his dying process. I was shocked by the rapid progression of his disease and I watched our family helplessly stand by as the cancer consumed his body.
But what haunts me most was the sight of two of our children lighting cigarettes after Jim's funeral.
My two sons continued to smoke, even after watching their father cough up blood, suffer debilitating pain, and waste away to skeletal proportions. They lit up even after watching their father become nauseated, weak, and unable to hold down food after radiation treatments. And they lit up even after watching him become progressively unable to get out of bed, feed himself, or find the right words for what he wanted to say.
One of Jim's favorite stories was about when his father Ð also a lifelong smoker Ð was dying of lung cancer and Jim left his bedside to take a cigarette break. A nurse saw him smoking and asked him if he understood what his father was dying from. Jim said yes.
Three generations of Battle men have smoked, despite glaring evidence of the killer nature of this addiction. And three generations of non-smoking Battle wives have enabled their own denial by purchasing cigarettes for their husbands and silently inhaling secondary smoke.
This is not just a Battle family problem.
Every day more than 2,200 young Americans under the age of 18 become daily smokers. Worldwide deaths from tobacco-related illnesses are predicted to increase from 4 million in 1999 to 10 million by the 2030s.
The good news is that some of the lost life expectancy can be regained no matter when in the life cycle a person stops smoking.
Men who quit smoking at age 35 are estimated to live about 8.5 years longer than men who remain smokers. Men who quit at age 65 can gain two additional years. Women who stop at age 35 are expected to gain an additional 7.7 years, while older women who quit can expect an additional four years.
For Jim Battle, these additional years would have allowed him to see our soon-to-be-newest grandchild whose birth is imminent. It would have allowed him to kiss the bride when our eldest son marries next year and to watch our daughter begin a career as a nurse.
What does it take to break the cycle; to get my sons Ñ and other mothers' sons and daughters Ð to put out the cigarette they are smoking and let it be their last? How can we help our children not take the first puff?
There are some statistics that address this question.
Middle-school students are more likely to try cigarettes if they have a parent or sibling who smoke. Eighth graders with a family member who smokes are more than twice as likely to smoke than their peers living in non-smoking homes.
These figures force us to ask hard personal questions. Are we willing to forego the pleasure of the next puff to help our kids live longer and healthier lives? How badly do we want to be alive and present to applaud their milestones?
How many more abstract mortality statistics will become personal family tragedies before increased government and community monies are allocated to develop creative solutions to this complex problem?
For all our sakes, I hope that statistic is small.
Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at Judy@writeaction.com. Additional information on this and other topics can be found at http://www.writeaction.com.