Okay, I confess. I have smoked a few cigarettes in my time. In fact, more than a few. While my teenaged brother was hiding his favorite smoking material in the Encyclopedia Britannica under the letter “M” (much to the horror of my mother, who decided she needed to read up on this new scourge called marijuana), I was trying to be the cool kid, the girl who knew how to—what did we call it?—French inhale. The girl who watched films by Bunuel and Truffaut and made fun of the pretty cheerleaders in their short skirts. In high school it was Marlboro Lights (I’m from Texas, surely you can understand!). By college it was Dunhills, Warhol and Stan Brakhage, but only a half pack a day, and ONLY that much during the final exam period which required the pulling of “all-nighters” to make up for a semester of less than perfect attendance. I have never been much good at getting up in the morning.
By the time I got to medical school, smoking was still considered marginally acceptable. I spent six weeks on Dr. Michael DeBakey’s cardiothoracic surgery service, trying stay out of the way and not block the cardiac monitor while earnest cardiac fellows learned to transform saphenous veins into new coronary arteries. Senior surgeons would peek in the rooms periodically, pulling their scrub gowns up as shields to hide the cigarette dangling from their mouths, the ash dripping on the floor as they exclaimed, “Lord, please help this poor patient because OBVIOUSLY no one in this operating room can!” The OR lounges, where scrub nurses and residents took their breaks, were smokier than Las Vegas casinos on a Saturday night.
That all ended when I started my internal medicine residency, and fell in love with a pulmonary doctor. One simply cannot be a smoker while dating someone whose idea of sexy is clean pink lungs without a trace of carcinogen. I quit completely in 1979. I gave up those cigarettes and never looked back. No, that’s not entirely true–I’m lying a little bit, we all do. There is not a former smoker on the face of the planet who can say honestly, truthfully that they never EVER crave a cigarette. But craving a cigarette is unbecoming of a radiation oncologist. By the time I finished my second residency, in radiation oncology, I had seen enough lung and head and neck cancer to be permanently and forever in the nonsmoking lane of life.
Now, occasionally I have to stop at the gas station, or the pharmacy or the grocery store on my way home from work. I see teenagers, barely “of age”, at the counter buying cigarettes and paying a lot more for them than I ever did. I see them hanging around outside, enjoying a smoke, texting their friends. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, I want to stop them—talk to them—invite them to spend a day with me at the cancer center up the road, where they can watch the lung cancer patients coughing up blood, or gasping for air, or wasting away from cancer related anorexia and weakness. But I never do. Even I know that you can’t talk to teenagers like that—besides, after all these years, I’m still a little bit shy.
At home, I still have an ashtray. It’s a big one, blue and flat bottomed, and we use it as a candle holder because I love scented candles (have I mentioned I have four dogs and a cat?) It was given to my husband by his college friend Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip. On it is a picture of Mr. Butts, Garry’s fictional advice giving cigarette caricature, spouting his words of wisdom to the youth. Mr. Butts says, “Go ahead kids. You’re immortal!” Would that it were true.