Life is too short; don’t let it go up in smoke

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sean Robinson
  • 22nd Communication Squadron
My uncle died April 30 from lung and brain cancer, most likely caused by smoking for 50 years. He was diagnosed with cancer less than three months ago.

Likewise, my father died from lung cancer in 2004 after more than 50 years of smoking. His diagnosis came about eight months prior to his death.

As you might guess, this is not a feel-good article, nor is it about leadership, core values, or some other topic you might expect in this space. Rather this piece focuses on the deadly effects of tobacco use, specifically smoking. I chose to focus on this topic because of the deaths of my father and uncle, but, more importantly, because I see so many young Airmen who are addicted to smoking. Perhaps my words will make at least one of them consider finding the strength and courage to quit sooner rather than later.

My father and my uncle enjoyed smoking. I would guess they each smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day. My father started smoking when he was in his early teens and didn't quit until he was in his sixties. My uncle began smoking in his late teens when he became a Marine.

When I think about the two of them together, I remember them with cigarettes in hand discussing their Marine Corps days. Smoking was a part of life for them, as it was for most of their friends.

Tobacco use, particularly cigarette smoking, is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. In 2005, lung cancer accounted for more deaths than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer combined. Consider the following statistics from the National Cancer Institute: cigarette smoke contains about 4,000 chemical agents, including over 60 carcinogens; cigarette smoking alone is directly responsible for approximately 30 percent of all cancer deaths annually in the United States; lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women; cigarette smoking causes 87 percent of lung cancer deaths.

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all stages of lung cancer combined is only 15 percent. The survival rate is 49 percent for cases detected when the disease is still localized, but only 16 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed at this early stage.

Unfortunately, my father and my uncle were not in the 16 percent category. Their self-inflicted damage was too far advanced. In June 2004, I spent my last hours with my father. During that visit, I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. I knew when I left him in the hospital in my hometown that I would not see him alive again. My last two days with him were emotional, as my father was not the man who I remembered less than a year prior. He was thin and pale from the chemotherapy and radiation he was undergoing. He was on medication for depression and on oxygen to assist his breathing. His mind was elsewhere due to the morphine he was taking for pain.

I never saw my father cry until he was in the last stages of his life. Watching my hero waste away in front of my eyes was disheartening. After returning to Germany, I witnessed my father's last hours from a distance through my family over the video phone. To be honest, I was glad I was not there. After his death, I was glad his suffering was over; nonetheless, I wish he was still around to know his youngest grandchild, my 3-year-old daughter.

Yes, we will all die some day, but why help make that day come around any sooner than necessary? If you are a smoker, especially if you are young and/or have children, think about seeking assistance to quit.

The earlier a person quits, the greater the health benefit. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who quit before age 50 reduce their risk of dying in the next 15 years by half compared with those who continue to smoke.

Even though my father did eventually quit, it was too late. The effects of smoking for more than 50 years are difficult to reverse. My father lived a good life, no doubt; however, he died a slow, painful death. My mother lived that same slow, painful death along with him.

If you smoke and you think you will escape this same fate, think again, the statistics are against you. There's no time like the present to quit. Find the courage and be the one; your family will love you for it.