things my cancer taught me 3: don’t smoke!

marlboro manEveryone knows you shouldn’t smoke.  But there are different ways of knowing things.  Everyone also knows that it hurts if you hit your thumb with a hammer.  Still, you know this fact in a completely different way if you actually take a hammer and whack your thumb as hard as you can.

If you come with me to Dr Hong’s clinic on a Tuesday, I’ll whack your thumb for you.  Dr Hong’s specialty is cancer of the neck and throat.  He sees some 150 patients in a day, and most of his cases are terrible.  Waiting our turn, we’ll see the man with a hole in his throat where he inserts the feeding tube; the woman who not only drags two small children along with her but also an oxygen tank; the man who only can make grunting noises since they took away his vocal cords; the young guy who’s every breath sounds like someone is blowing air into a paper bag.

Yes, I too was a smoker.  In the last year of high-school I met my first girlfriend.  She was French; she read Jean-Paul Sartre; we skipped classes together, had sex, listened to Leonard Cohen, and talked about poetry.  I had never known anyone like that or talked about those things before (I had never skipped a class either).  For a little boy from northern Sweden, this was the life, this was freedom.  I was becoming my own person.  My first girlfriend smoked, and I smoked with her.

After we parted ways, I took the new habit with me. I used snus — Swedish chewing tobacco — and eventually I graduated to nicotine gums.  But I had no illusions.  I always knew how dangerous it was.  I cursed myself daily for being such a self-destructive fool.  Still, I just couldn’t stop.

When Doctor Ko’s assistant registered me at the hospital in Taipei, I told him an abbreviated version of this story.  ” But I have been completely nicotine free the last 15 years,” I proudly concluded the tale.  There were two boxes at the top of the registration form: one for betelnut chewers, the other for smokers.  “OK,” said the assistant and shrugged his shoulders.  To my great relief he didn’t tick the “smoker” box.

So there is no official link between the sins of my youth and my illness.  Officially I can escape blame.  Still, my cancer has taught me in a completely new way something I always knew: whatever you do in life, don’t smoke!


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