Lung cancer: another triumph of the free market

A guest post from Chris

I’m about to lose my second parent to lung cancer. My mom quit smoking in 1993. She died in 2001 of small-cell metastatic lung cancer. The first sign of cancer came in 1997, in a chest x-ray. Mom had major thoracic surgery to remove the growth, as well as a lobe of her left lung. The doctor did not follow up with preventive chemotherapy or radiation.

Two years later, in April of 1999, she went to the doctor to check out a lump on her neck. A lymph node. Highly undifferentiated cells, according to the biopsy. By then, the cancer had spread to her liver, spleen, bones, and brain. She fought it every step of the way. Three separate runs of chemo, each several weeks long, a few months apart. Radiation for the tumors in her brain. She lost her hair. She felt tired most of the time. She lost weight. The last few months, she couldn’t really eat, partly from lack of appetite, partly from nausea, and partly because the chemo had destroyed her gums and teeth and made it very painful for her to chew her food.

On the Labor Day weekend before she died, I was crying upstairs in the spare room. My dad heard me, called up the stairs, and I went down and cried with him. We held each other against the world, both of us sobbing, knowing she was leaving us. The oncologist told us that 99 percent of the cases of small-cell lung cancer (the most aggressive form) are people who smoked. And 99 percent of those people die. We tried to hold out the hope that Mom would be one of the one percent of survivors. She wasn’t. On February 7, 2001, four days before my 29th birthday, she died in a hepatic coma at Winchester Regional Medical Center. Room 326.

At the end, she couldn’t walk or go to the bathroom by herself. Her urine was brown. Very glamorous, this lifestyle of a smoker.

She knew smoking was bad for her. She’d been a clinical dietitian in hospitals for most of her adult life. In college, when she and her friends started smoking, they referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails” and “cancer sticks.” But we all think it won’t happen to us.

After Mom died, my father still smoked. Still does. He has COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is terminal. You can’t stop it from killing you. You can only slow it down, by quitting. He still smokes. The walls of his bedroom are brown with smoke and nicotine stains. In December, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, too. It’s non-small-cell cancer, a less aggressive form. He still smokes.

Dad’s friends talked him into getting treatment for the cancer, for Jack’s sake. He did: a new drug called Pemetrexed. Low side effects: just fatigue, no nausea, no hair loss. He went through two treatments, and they shrank the tumor almost down to nothing. A month after his second treatment, he went back, and the tumor had grown back to its original size. The doctor explained that with such a quick recurrence, they would need to treat it more aggressively this time. More side effects. Harder on the body. This time, Dad opted out. A cousin suggested that he use oxygen to help, but… he’s still smoking. He could blow himself up. Of course, he used to make his own fireworks. Maybe that’s his plan.

This shit kills people. The only reason it’s still legal is that tobacco companies make a lot of money (and employ a lot of people), and they’re a very powerful (some say dangerous) lobby on Capitol Hill. The John Grisham book The Runaway Jury was written about a lawsuit against tobacco companies. For the film version, they changed the issue to gun control.

My father started smoking when he was about ten years old. He thought he was being rebellious. I’m sure cigarette marketing focused on that angle. Be independent. Smoke. James Dean, etc. It looked hip, elegant, and tough. But he wasn’t being rebellious. Both of his parents smoked. A large corporation is making money on his ill health.

If you smoke, you’re not being a rebel. You’re letting a corporation think for you, take over your body via nicotine, and kill you for profit. You die, they make money. Honestly, people. That’s how it works.

Yes, I have a personal ax to grind. Of course I do. My mom is dead. My father is dying. And I’ll be an orphan in a few months. I’ll be a 38-year-old orphan, but my son will have no grandparents on my side, and he’ll think that my husband’s parents are normal. I don’t want that. But it’s not my choice, you see? I wonder if it was even his.

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3 Responses to Lung cancer: another triumph of the free market

  1. Rachel! says:

    Chris, I’m so, so sorry to read this. As an on again-off again (mostly on, sadly) smoker myself, it’s easy to forget what pain and harm such a stupid habit can cause. It’s small consolation, I know, but I grew up without paternal grandparents–also from lung cancer, but as a result of coal mining–and only a grandmother on my maternal side, and it’s made me appreciate what family I have that much more. I’ve also become strangely infatuated with the elderly and have mentally adopted dozens of grandparents (ahemClydeahem)–so if you look at it that way, I’m sure Jack will grow up grand, even sans grandfolks.

  2. Hope says:

    The horrifying thing about cigarettes is how addictive they’ve been made to be, and still are. Everyone I talk to about smoking says some variation on “I’d like to quit, but…” They’re all stuck in this really awful place, of knowing something is bad for them and wanting to stop, but not being able to stop, at a physical level. I would say it’s fair to call tabacco companies more than dangerous.

  3. clsguppy says:

    Thanks, guys, for the comments. Yes, I used to work in the drug prevention field, Hope, and word on the street is that nicotine is as hard to kick as heroin. Lovely stuff. Ridiculous that it could possibly be legal. Rachel, thank you for that reminder. I have several adopted “moms” and a great adopted “older sister,” who all mean a lot to me. Jack will find his family. I just wish it included my dad.

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