16 Oct 2021

Keep your lungs healthy.

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In 10th grade,  we high school students had to watch a scary video in our health/gym class about smoking. We were exhorted never to smoke, and saw ghoulish photographs of blackened shrunken lungs contrasted with juicy pink healthy ones.  Later, when we got on the bus to go home, a flock of students rushed to the back of the bus, giggling and crying out, “I gotta have a cigarette.” “I’m dying for a cigarette” was a signal for hysterical laughter. By the time the bus turned onto my street, the back was full of smoke.

Throughout high school, we watched Trainex film strips, where the teacher advanced the film when prompted by the narrator.  Again we were given more information about the risks of smoking. I graduated high school believing that when I quit smoking, my lungs would miraculously regenerate and all would be well.

My grandmother smoked. My grandfather smoked a pipe. Both my parents smoked. My father smoked Cavalier cigarettes that came in a tin of 100. He quit when I was 4, but kept all the tins as they made great storage for nails, nuts and bolts.  He smoked an occasional pipe or cigar during the remainder of his 91 years.

My mother started smoking in her teens, and kept on smoking, well into her 40s before she quit, She was inspired to quit by both starting therapy and by her mother’s death. My grandmother died in 1972 from a heart attack, the result of a decades long 3 pack a day smoking habit.

As a small child, I helped Margie, my grandmother, by emptying her overflowing  and stinking ashtrays. As a little girl, I felt proud to make them all clean and fresh. (What a childhood memory to have of a beloved grandparent.)

In Paris, in 1969,  a professor of English at Cornell university introduced me to cannabis. I eventually carried on smoking cannabis, and also started tobacco use in college as one could not smoke cannabis in public in the late 1960s. One could smoke a cigarette. Tobacco made me high, although it was a heavy and joyless high. I was a light smoker into my 20s, until I wanted to have a baby. Not wanting to be smoking and be pregnant, I quit.  After she grew older, I smoked only cannabis, and that was an irregular occurrence, ebbing and flowing with my emotional state.  A few decades ago, I eventually ceasing smoking anything altogether as I disliked the taste in my mouth the next day.

The public health message about smoking being bad for the lungs floated around in the back of my mind, along with the belief that the day I quit smoking, my lungs would recover.

An 80-year old friend has congestive heart failure and persistent pulmonary hypertension; turns out she was a chain smoker in her 20s and 30s. One of the diagnoses on my mother’s death certificate is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. Her doctor said that she had a chronic cough. I asked about this, saying that my mother had quit smoking at least 40 years before her death at 91. The doctor replied that while it is always good to quit, in her case, the damage was beyond healing.

One of the regrets I have as I grow older is that I abused my body for decades, enough that I am now dealing with the impact of wearing high heels, being anorexic, and skating.My smoking history is light enough that it doesn’t seem that I have done any damage. My lungs are serving me well.  With my family history and denial of the risks, I am grateful and lucky.

Don’t make smoking a habit. You might want to be healthy when you get to be 50 and 60 and older




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