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The Heartache of Smoking-Related Disease – A Personal Story

A Sad Milestone at Three Years Smoke-Free

By Terry Martin, Guide

Updated January 31, 2010 Health’s Disease and Condition content is reviewed by our Medical Review Board

The Heartache of Smoking-Related Disease - A Personal Story

My Parents

Photo © Donna

With upwards of 5 million people around the world losing their lives to smoking-related disease each year, most of us have had close personal experience with the trauma and heartache that death by tobacco causes for everyone involved. And, as hard as it is to do, taking a close look at the stark reality of how smoking-related disease affects lives is a dose of motivation like nothing else for the smoker who wants to quit.

I’d like to introduce you to Donna, a member of the support forum here at Smoking Cessation. The following account is what she posted to the forum community to commemorate her third year smoke-free anniversary. It is a not a happy account, but it is an important and meaningful message, offered from her heart to yours in the hope that the pain and suffering her family has endured because of tobacco use can be avoided by you and yours.

Thanks for sharing your story Donna, and congratulations on three years smoke-free. Your parents must have been so grateful to see you break free.

Three years ago, I filled my very first Chantix prescription, put away my tobacco, and attempted my 19th, and final quit. I knew the statistics of my succeeding for one year were slim…That’s why we have the 7% Club. I also knew the statistics of my succeeding for two years were slimmer, but once two years was under my belt, I had an 80% chance of remaining smober for the rest of my life.

I celebrate year three with a lot of pain, a lot of emotional turmoil, and a lot of challenges which arose. Strangely enough, tobacco was STILL intertwined with my life, although it was a more subtle presence.

On January 22, 2009, my sister in Oklahoma called me and begged me to get her and her three kids. She’d found her husband was cheating on her after 19 years of marriage, and the aftermath was explosive. I drove up there, got her, and got to smell cigarette smoke at every rest stop we took on the 12-hour drive home. My sister is a “light” smoker. Her brood and she moved in with us.

On February 22, 2009, my beloved Daddy, a heavy smoker who started in his teens, was diagnosed with stage 4 small-cell lung cancer. The diagnosis shocked him. The doctor told him the results of a CT scan, and my father got up abruptly and left the office. The cancer was so advanced that, of the 23 tumors, one had eaten through the lung, digested part of a rib, and was presenting itself as a swollen, fist-shaped lump above his pectoral muscle. You could SEE the mass. My sister packed up her brood and moved in to take care of Daddy and Mom.

On March 21, 2009, my Daddy died. Do you know what death by tobacco looks like? I do. I have now learned how to work with an oxygen cylinder, because my father was hooked up to one 24/7, and I know how to cut it off, because Daddy would ask me to turn it off so he could smoke without blowing himself up. I know how bad this addiction truly is, because my Dad didn’t stop smoking until 2 days before he died, when he became too weak and unresponsive to hold a cigarette. But first, the cancer swelled his lower legs until the ankle was as wide as the foot itself. He lost the ability to walk, the ability to move, the ability to void, and finally the ability to get out of bed. In four weeks, he went from active caregiver of my sick Mom, to dead.

On March 23, 2009, we buried my Daddy. I will never forget staying in the graveyard after the service. I uncaringly sat on the grass in my new dress and watched, numb, as the funeral home worker applied the mortar which would seal my beloved father in his final resting place. My fingers absently twirled the yellow rose I’d taken off his casket spray, and the tears…Well, they bubbled under the surface, but couldn’t come out. I watched as my Mom rolled her motorized scooter to the car.

As this year progressed, my mother’s health has also declined. After 47 years of living with a heavy smoker, my Mom was also on oxygen. She has COPD, although she has never smoked a day in her life. She got it from living with Daddy’s cigarette smoking for all those years. When we told Mom of Daddy’s diagnosis, she turned to Daddy and screamed, “I hope you’re happy now! You’re dying, and I’m going to die because of you!” I know it was a horrified response, but still…Something in me broke that day.

Within a month of Daddy’s death, my Mom’s left foot was amputated due to restricted circulation resulting from COPD and diabetes.

Mom didn’t escape the presence of tobacco with Dad’s death. My sister is also an addict, and she smokes in the home.

Today, as I write this, Mom is lying in a hospital bed 20 minutes north of me. She is unresponsive, and she is in the active stages of dying. Part of what is killing her is the inability of her body to absorb oxygen thanks to COPD. By this time next week, I will be attending another funeral of a parent. I’ve lost them both within a year of one another.

Daddy was 63. Mom is (was?) 64. Tobacco has taken such a toll on my family this year. It’s killed both of my parents, even though only one was lighting up.

Occasional craves are a part of every ex-smoker’s life for a time. Although they aren’t as insistent or as debilitating as those frantic first weeks of quitting, they can be quite seductive during periods of intense emotions. I can tell you the exact day of my last “crave”. It was when I looked at my father’s CT scan on my laptop, and I focused in on that one tumor which clearly showed itself as going from the back of the left lung, through the lung, through the chest wall, through the rib, and ending a mere mm or two under the skin. It was when I realized that there was no hope, that he would die, and he would die gruesomely because of smoking.

I broke free of tobacco on January 7, 2007, at 9:30 pm. I was 33 when I quit.

Today, I am still quit. I will NOT ever pick up a cigarette again. I will NOT die the way my parents have died. I will NOT be a slave to an addiction.


A Life Lost to COPD

In part one of this story, Donna, a member of the Smoking Cessation support forum shared the tragic story of losing her father to lung cancer. Just months later, Donna and her family were forced to face the death of their dear mother to COPD, though she never smoked a day in her life.

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke is responsible for 3,400 lung-related deaths annually. It is more than likely that living in a smoking home for years upon years was a major influence in the development of the COPD that eventually stole the life of Donna’s mother.

Thank you for sharing your very personal story with us here Donna. Smoking-related disease is the most preventable cause of death on the planet today, and I know your account will make a difference to every person who reads it.

My mother passed away on Thursday, January 14, at 1:30 pm. I was blessed to be there when she passed. My sister called me on Wednesday, and asked me to stay with her and Mom until “the time came”. I didn’t think twice…I hopped into my vehicle and drove the hour north to my parents’ place.

My mother’s condition had steadily worsened over the last week, and even Hospice nurses marveled over my mother’s will to live over the last few days. She was no doubt in agony, and each breath was taken at the result of great personal pain. There are some end-of-life symptoms which are inherent to kidney failure, but those of COPD are unmistakable…My mother gasped and twisted her head for each tortured breath. During the last two days, when she sank into a coma, the Hospice nurse took her oxygen tube and placed it in her open mouth. She lost the ability to breathe through her nose.

The Hospice nurse looked at us and said, “It could be tonight or tomorrow. I’m almost tempted to stay here, I’m fairly certain she’ll go tonight.” We told her we would be okay, and she reluctantly left.

I spent the night there. My sister slept in a recliner next to the hospital bed, and I lay on a twin mattress on the floor in the room. I spent the night wavering between a restless sleep and groggy wakefulness, when I would look at the bed and watch my mom “point” her head as she struggled.

Dreams tortured what snatches of sleep I stole. In one dream, my mother threw off the blankets, dropped the bedrails, and hung her thin legs over the side of the bed to look at me. “You know,” she chirped, “I think I’m going to get out of here today.” She then looked around, and a cloud of uncertainty shifted over her features. She sighed, glared at her oxygen tube tether and said, “Oh, never mind. I think I’ll just stay in bed.” And she lay back down again, covered herself, adjusted her oxygen tube, and resumed her comatose state. I awoke to see Mom’s prone, sleeping form, and I shivered. The dream had seemed so real.

Dawn just couldn’t come soon enough.

As the day progressed, my mother’s breaths became shallower and shallower, and the period of time between breath longer and longer. Finally, after a long exhalation, no further breaths came.

It was over.

My sister went to the kitchen and lit a cigarette. I stood on the back porch, and with dry eyes felt my whole being start screaming. I have never felt so alone as I did the day my remaining parent passed away. I am now truly alone in the world.

None of us can, with full certainty, determine when and how we will end our lives. My mother was no exception. She did not choose to die of COPD, nor did she choose to smoke…Her death from a smoking-related disease was from second-hand smoke from my father. Through this incredible sorrow in my heart, I’m at least comforted that she is no longer suffering. She is no longer in agony.

There ARE some things each of us can control. We can control whether or not we smoke a cigarette. We can control our exposure to others’ cigarette smoke. We can lobby our legislators for stricter laws regarding tobacco products, and for laws which assure our right to clean air, and even start calling for an outright ban on tobacco.

Please make no mistake, tobacco kills in horrific ways. I am 36 years old, and yesterday, I lost my parents within 10 months of one another, and they both died from tobacco.

I have seen several posts at the Smoking Cessation support forum where new quitters have found, within the words here, the ability to stay quit for one more day. Please, please understand, what you fight isn’t just an addiction. It’s a certain death you are avoiding. By not smoking, you are reducing your risk of cancer, of COPD, of emphysema, of macular degeneration, of heart disease, of limited blood circulation…The list goes on and on and on.

When I smoked, the biggest lie I told myself was that smoking-related diseases happen to other people. Well, those “other people” were the two people I loved most in this world. It was Daddy and Momma. I’ve witnessed two deaths which will haunt me until my own time comes. My saving grace in quitting were these forums, and the people who had quit before me, and the people who quit with me. In a very real sense, I owe my life to Terry and the moderators and the members here. Without them, I would not have quit. Had I not quit, the horrific deaths of my parents would very much be my own death.

And so, I have changed my destiny. I ask you to do the same. I challenge you to NOT take the chance to be that “other person”.

Please, if you are thinking of lighting up again tonight, don’t do it. Use the resources here. Fight your way through your quit. Cherish those clean breaths, protect them, and love those you are with for everything you are worth. Don’t torture your loved ones with a death like I’ve described in this thread. Break free of your addiction, and change your destiny, too. You’ll never regret it once you get to the “other side”. I promise.


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