I realize now that I’ve neglected to address one of the more difficult aspects of my “cancer journey” (as Gilda’s Club calls it) in this blog. And that’s because, for some reason, it carries a huge helping of shame along with it.
For lack of a better term, I’ll call it “lifestyle overhaul.”
There’s this thing on Facebook called “superlatives.” I’m a Facebook novice by choice. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I could get carried away with, and because of that, I have opted to just dabble to a tiny degree. But today, I accessed the Superlatives function—a program that lets you “nominate” your friends for all sorts of stupid, high school yearbook superlatives-- and realized that Jas had named me “most likely to party like a rockstar.”
It’s a backhanded compliment, to be sure.
Before cancer, I deserved that epigraph. I did, admittedly, drink to a degree that did, at times, cause concern both to me and to those that I love. I have no doubt that my lifestyle choices, pre-cancer, altered relationships perhaps even to destructive degrees. Hindsight—if I were to dwell on it long enough, which I won’t because I don’t need any more grief these days—might even tell me that I might still be romantically involved with Jason if my lifestyle choices had been different along the way.
The connection between breast cancer and drinking has been the subject of research. But the connection between smoking and cancer is fairly incontrovertible. And I smoked like a California wildfire from age 18 on. That’s more than half my life.
As the daughter of a victim of cancer—a man who died at age 27 from the disease—one would think I would “know better.” But I was also the daughter of a chain smoking mother, a woman who to this day balks at the idea of spending more than “scarf down your food time” at a restaurant where smoking isn’t allowed.
Quitting smoking has been a battle, but it is one that I am winning.
I wish I could say that I’ve won. I quit cold turkey—whammo! Done—after my surgery. At Bonnaroo, I gave in to my devils and allowed myself a single pack (as comparison, let it be known that I went through more than five packs at Bonnaroo the year before). And since then—more than a month now—I’ve been so good. But it doesn’t mean that I have “beat it.”
I went out for a beer (two to be fair) with a friend of mine tonight. It was gorgeous and hot and we sat outside and everywhere everyone was smoking, and I wanted to smoke SO BADLY. A few weeks ago, Jas and I went to a hookah bar for the first time, and my head suddenly became electric—hookah!?! Could I indulge my neediness that way? Is smoking a hookah as bad for you as smoking a cigarette?? I did my research only to find that the jury is still mostly out on that one.
It gets so bad sometimes that I think I would smoke a rolled-up paper towel just to go through the goddamned motions of holding something burning in my hand and drawing the smoke into my lungs.
There’s a woman in my neighborhood who, six months ago, went through the exact same breast cancer ordeal that I am going through now. And, like me, she was/is a chain smoker. Her doctors would not perform the reconstructive surgery on her until she quit smoking… which she did not, and could not. She did, just a few weeks ago, finally get her doctors to relent, but she’s still smoking. I’m not sure why my doctors allowed me to do the whole shebang. I told them I’d quit, but why did they take my word?
J’s dad had colon cancer—it was, and still is, a huge deal, for a while we didn’t think he’d make it—and his response was basically, “Smoking probably did this to me. The worst happened. I might as well not bother stopping now.” Likewise, his mom—younger than my Ma—had a heart attack a few years ago, and she stopped for a little while but is smoking again.
So, J has been really cynical about me and my “lifestyle overhaul.” And perhaps that’s how I’ve been able to go Cold Turkey; I have something to prove to him: that cancer smartened me up, that I’ve learned my lesson the very hardest fucking way possible.
Do I blame my cancer on smoking? It would have been easier to say no if my genetics tests had proven that I was predisposed to cancer. But they didn’t. My great grandmother died a smoker in her 90’s. My 58 year old mom started smoking in her teens and has never suffered consequences thus far. It’s so common to read stories of men and women living well into the triple digits smoking and drinking to rock star degrees.
I did, however, meet a woman in her sixties with lung cancer the other day at a “Look Good; Feel Better” event sponsored by the American Cancer Society. She’d just finished up a round of radiation because the cancer had spread to her brain. And when you meet someone with lung cancer, it’s hard NOT to understand what a boneheaded move smoking really is.
Louisville—Kentucky in general, actually—has one of the highest smoking rates in the country. Last summer, around this time, the city passed a smoking ban that caused a huge amount of controversy. Despite my status as a human chimney, I never really begrudged the move. I always knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was the right-ish thing to do (then, as I do now—believe it or not—I’ve always thought the BEST move was to force bars and restaurants to declare themselves “smoking” or “non-smoking” and leave it up to the fickle hand of the free market to do its fingery duty). Even in the dead of winter, I didn’t sulk when I had to take my dirty friend outside.
But one of the things that bugs me most is the number of kids who smoke in this city. I am only guessing here, but I am pretty sure that Louisville has a greater number of teen smokers than New Orleans did. I remember this time last year walking down to Starbucks and encountering a couple of students that I had taught, both of whom were smoking. They were well within their legal rights—clearly 18—and weirdly unembarrassed and willing to hold a conversation with me, cigarettes in hand.
I’ve always hidden the fact that I was a smoker from my students, and since moving to Louisville, I hid it from my colleagues as well, for the most part. It was April or so of THIS year that I ever smoked in front of a colleague (the same one I had beers with tonight), and it wasn’t until a Derby Party this year—the weekend before my biopsy—that I smoked around more than one colleague (two to be exact). After I was diagnosed, I mentioned my smoking to a colleague that I would say that I am VERY close to and she said, “I had NO idea you were a smoker; you never smell of smoke.”
I don’t remember exactly when I started smoking WITH my mother. It was definitely when I was still in college. I even smoked around my maternal grandparents in my early 20’s. But, in hindsight, what SHOULD have been my guide was the fact that I NEVER, EVER felt comfortable enough to smoke around my paternal grandmother—the mother of my father who died of cancer.
I was always too ashamed of the habit to smoke around her. This despite the fact that, ever since I was a child, the ONLY person who has ever been allowed to smoke in my grandmother’s house was my mom. Ma had an ashtray that lived in my grandmother’s dishtowel drawer. When we came to visit, the ashtray came out, and, even at the dinner table, Ma was allowed to light up. I’m not saying that my grandmother approved—but she accepted.
To my aunts and uncles who smoked (and still do), my mom’s status as “accepted smoker” made her a legend in the family. It’s been so long since I’ve been to my grandmother’s house WITH my mother, that I don’t know if this status still holds—I doubt that it does. But most of my aunts and uncles still hide their smoking from my grandmother—and during extended visits, they sneak out to various hiding places to indulge—places that I’ve learned and shared in my adulthood.
Retrospect on my lifestyle choices leaves me wondering and sad. The brother of my father who always seemed to be most touched by Dad’s death smokes and always has. Ma, who lost her husband to cancer, whose dad suffered terribly from emphysema and smoking-related heart ailments, and now has a daughter that is trying to kick cancer’s (and smoking’s) ass, still smokes.
Maybe Ma’ll be like my great grandmother; I suppose that was the gamble that I signed on to. I do know that my smoking was one of the many “make or break” issues in my romantic relationship with Jason, and I always postponed the “make” part of that, assuring him that “someday” would come soon.
Again, wondering and sad. And, frankly, absurdly, addictedly, wishing that there was a comparable bad habit that I could embrace without suffering the same shame and running the same risk.
(Many of my friends would answer: POT! Again, absurd to think that somehow me being a pot smoker might have been more acceptable to people around me than being a cigarette smoker.)