Smoking...and the Families It Leaves Behind
It astonishes people to hear that 1,000 people die each day from smoking in the U.S. alone! If each of them has an average of five loved ones, that equals 50,000 people suffering a tremendous loss from tobacco-related deaths every day. If you take 1,000 20-year-olds who smoke today, 250 of them will die in middle age and lose an average of 20 to 25 years of life expectancy. That's a lot of family life cycle events—births of grandchildren, bar mitzvahs, graduations and marriages—as well as holidays and other gatherings that the smoker and his or her family miss together.
The death or illness of a smoker in the family also molds family life through economic losses and emotional absence. It is estimated that half of all long-term smokers will die from smoking-caused illness. But for every smoker who eventually dies from smoking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there are 20 more people who are living "with at least one serious illness from smoking." Smoking therefore impacts family life not only through the premature loss of parents and grandparents, but also through the diminished capacity of those with smoking-related illness to fulfill family roles and expectations.
My mother came to this country at the age of 3 from Odessa, Russia. Because she and her family were all learning English, she had trouble in school and with understanding the people who looked after her when my grandmother and grandfather went to work. I've always had endless admiration for immigrants who come to a strange country and learn a foreign language to make a new life. My mother grew up to become a voracious reader, a lover—and quoter—of great books and a dedicated high school English teacher in New York City.
She was first diagnosed with cancer about the time she turned 50. Even after her diagnosis, she continued to smoke, and I remember discussing this with her, and then seeing her get serious about it and stop smoking. This was long before I knew I would be making a career of such interventions. I have since learned that people with a primary cancer diagnosis who continue to smoke are much more likely to develop a second tumor than those who quit.
My mother was by nature a playful person with a good sense of humor, but her illness greatly diminished her quality of life during her last decade. Being sick made her very unhappy. She had been physically beautiful throughout her life, but now didn't feel beautiful anymore. You often hear smokers joke, "Well, you have to die of something." But it's no joking matter when the doctor delivers a smoking-related diagnosis.
My mother lost her life to lung cancer at the age of 59. She left behind five children, countless relatives and a lifetime of friends. She wrote the following poem about her final period of illness and called it "9-3-82" as if to pause and mark her experience that day. It was written exactly one month before her death:
Sitting here looking at water and blue sky,
Looking at brilliant sunsets
I am reminded of my life separate
From all my loved people.
In two days, I go back to the hospital,
To the clear separation of the well and the sick.
Even now I feel the stigma attached to sickness:
I am less than I am.
I am shrunken by my limitations.
I am surrounded by my pain.
My people cannot cross my boundary,
And I cannot cross theirs.
We meet at the border, and we love each other.
— Nancy Seidman (1923-1982)
Has smoking robbed you of time with a loved one? Or are you finally ready to quit? Share your story in the comments area.
Dr. Daniel Seidman is a clinical psychologist and director of the smoking cessation service at Columbia University Medical Center. He is the author of Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit—which has a foreword by Dr. Oz. For more details about the book, visit DanielFSeidman.com.
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