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Up in Smoke

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, March 25, 2011

I quit smoking 25 years ago. Before that, I had tried eight times, and each time I failed.

Three things finally got me to quit, cold turkey, forever:

-- My then husband, who hated the smell, the smoke, the whole nine yards of living with someone who can't even tell when they are stinking up the house and the car.

-- The fact that I wanted to have children.

-- A passage I read in a book I can't otherwise remember about a woman who goes back to her college class reunion and discovers that, indeed, the people who were the big smokers and the big drinkers were the ones who didn't live to reunite. I didn't want to be one of those people.

But in the years since, as I have grown older and realized how unbelievably stupid -- not cool, not hip, not the least bit certain to make me thin -- it was to have smoked all those years, the disease that has terrified me more than any other is lung cancer.

And then, 11 years ago, my best friend Judy died of lung cancer. "Did she smoke?" everyone asked me, as if that made her responsible for her fatal illness. As it happened, she did not. Neither did Rosie, my beloved nanny/housekeeper/family member of 25 years who was diagnosed two years ago, thankfully at an earlier stage where surgery is possible. Knock on wood, so far so good, May God bless her.

Lung cancer is probably the only disease where we are so quick to blame the person who has it, as if they somehow deserve it. Do we blame heart attack patients for years of eating burgers and not working out? One of the reasons, I think, that this most deadly cancer has not been researched in the way more popular -- but not more dangerous -- cancers have is because of this blame game.

Knowing all this, having railed against those who would blame the victim, I still blame myself for all those years of smoking. Why did I do it? Didn't I understand the long-term consequences? Didn't I care?

Not then. When you're young, you can't imagine being in your 50s and literally being terrified waiting for the CT scan. A new study, which was cut short last November because the findings were so clear, has established that low-dose CT scans given to people who smoked the equivalent of one pack a day for 30 years cut the death rate of lung cancer as compared to X-ray screening by 20 percent.

So there I sat, terrified, beating myself up for the mistakes I made when I was 16. The test was fine. I sit here now breathing sighs of relief. But I also know that when I step outside, there will be kids younger than my own breathing that poison in without even thinking about the fact that a few decades down the road they will be sitting where I sit -- if they're lucky.

I talked to my wonderful doctor, telling him how stupid I feel about all those years of smoking. He reassured me. It was different then. We smoked in restaurants and airplanes; we certainly smoked in the office. I used to chain smoke through my law school exams. Smoking was socially acceptable. My mother had boxes containing cigarettes that she would put out for company -- and that I would steal.

But if it was so different then, why do I keep seeing kids in front of buildings and at bus stops puffing away? Haven't they gotten the message? Why are so many Hollywood stars -- role models, supposedly -- photographed with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths?

I don't blame anyone for getting lung cancer -- even if they did smoke. I'd like to take the blame out of it and replace it with research money. But I would also like to shake up these young people who are setting themselves up for an addiction that could kill them, and for decades of worry even if it doesn't.

If only I knew how.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

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