School, Cancer, and Smoking

I’m taking a medical terminology class as a co-requisite for my acupuncture program. It’s a pain in the ass because it will drag out for a whole semester, and if I had the option I would test out of it — I remember all this stuff from massage school 15 years ago and my various stints as a medical assistant (which in one case included medical transcription). They don’t allow testing out, though, and while the lectures and practice exercises are posted in advance, the assignments and tests are released on a weekly basis, and I have to log in at least 3 times per week to pass the class. This morning I’ve been doing the exercises for the chapter on oncology, and it’s brought up some memories.


  • My Irish grandfather’s thick head of silver hair — complete with “Irish wave” — disappearing due to chemo, leaving him first bald as a pool cue (with a freckled scalp), then the possessor of wispy baby-fine white hair. Adiós, silver fox hair.
  • Hearing about my grandfather’s decline during chemo while I was across the country.
  • The excitement of hearing the chemo had worked.
  • The anger when the cancer came back.
  • The selfish despair when he decided not to do chemo a second time. “Go through that again? For what? I’m done.”
  • Family strife in the wake of his death.


  • My stepfather, who bounced back from a heart attack and open heart surgery as if nothing had ever been wrong and showing no outward physical changes, becoming a walking skeleton wrapped in papery skin.
  • Troubleshooting a stubborn oxygen tank replacement.
  • Buying a bed, having it delivered and set up in the living room, and carrying the nice mattress down from upstairs because he couldn’t climb stairs anymore. Not being able to use my hands without pain for a few days because that was too much for my bad wrists.
  • Looking at x-rays and scans with the pulmonary oncologist and hearing, “You know, a long-time smoker who’s destined to get cancer could have caught it sooner by getting regular chest films. Not catching it until Stage 4, there’s really nothing to be done.”
  • Hanging out with the technician during the PET scan because my heretofore-unwilling-to-show-any-emotion-except-anger-or-rage stepfather was afraid and didn’t want to be alone.
  • Teaching my stepfather the right way to hold the steroid inhaler.
  • Pretending it didn’t bother my bad wrists to have to load up the wheelchair and extra oxygen into my car every time we went to chemo.
  • Running down 5 flights of stairs so fast I almost broke my leg in a fall trying to get to the street as quickly as a I could to catch a cab while booking a flight on my Treo.
  • Driving 90 miles per hour from the airport an hour and a half away from the hospital, because it was the only flight I could get on in time, trying to get to the hospital before he was going to be put into an induced coma for surgery from which they weren’t sure if he’d wake up.
  • Looking through the broconchoscope at the ruined cells and wondering how the hell he was still alive.
  • Watching my mother wear down from her partnership turning into a nursemaid-patient relationship, with a cranky patient.
  • Overhearing, “Do you still love me?” “You’ve made it hard to love you lately,” before taking the train back to NYC, exhausted from so many weekends of coming up to help with cancer care.
  • Helping with stupid chores that could have been done later, like taking an old refrigerator to the dump, because he didn’t want my mom to have to deal with it when he was gone.
  • Sleeping through the call the next day when he died.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Go lung cancer!

Smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, as well as many other cancers, heart disease (I haven’t started flashing back to my grandmother’s heart disease and subsequent death yet, thankfully — also smoking-related), emphysema, and other bad stuff. Lung cancer rates are going up instead of down, despite how much we know about what smoking does to your body.

Seriously, people: stop smoking. Don’t put your family through this kind of death for you. Is your momentary addictive pleasure really worth their suffering later? Have some compassion for your future kids, your future grandkids, your future spouse, your future friends. Don’t be a selfish ass. Quit smoking now.

2 thoughts on “School, Cancer, and Smoking

  1. I was a smoker for 10 years and I quit cold turkey a year ago. I suffered some withdrawal syndrome but it didn’t stop me from quitting. Now, I am feeling better and I have been trying to exercise regularly for a better and healthier me. I know people who couldn’t quit smoking and they often makes an ultimatum that they are going to quit on this date. But I don’t know. If they want to quit, why set a date. Why not quit right away like what I did? :)

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