Where there is smoke

McMurray Musings Connects

By THERESA WELLS, Connect Columnist

This week the Alberta government took a small step, which didn’t generate a lot of media attention, although it should have. The sale of menthol-flavoured tobacco and cigarette products is now banned in Alberta, along with the sale of other flavoured tobacco products. This didn’t just catch my attention, but for me was also a reason to celebrate, because anything that keeps young adults from beginning to smoke, including removing flavoured tobacco, is a win in my books.

My father began smoking at the tender age of eight. I wish that was a typo, but it is not. One must remember he grew up in a different era, a hardscrabble life in the dirty-30’s on the Canadian prairies. By the time he was eight, he was more man than boy, still attending school (sometimes), but spending most of his time learning to farm. Nobody really knew the consequences of smoking on your health at that point, and so my father began to smoke when he was very young.

He quit, finally, in his 50s after his first heart attack. By then, we knew more about the ways smoking imperilled your health, and his cardiologist told him no smoking and no alcohol, a tough lifestyle change for an old farmer, but my dad was a remarkable man and he quit them both cold turkey. There was a fortitude in that I never really understood until I got older and realized how hard it is to let a habit of any sort go, and then I respected him even more for his ability to just stop doing something that I know must have been almost impossible to stop.

Four decades of smoking takes its toll, though. In his 70s, my father developed some worrisome signs, and the tests revealed the truth: lung cancer, the kind most commonly associated with smoking. Tumours were found that we hoped would shrink through aggressive chemotherapy, and they did, although the drugs were incredibly difficult for him to endure as the side effects were ferocious.

And then it spread into his brain. A single tumour, causing symptoms that seemed like a stroke but that were due to a metastasis of the lung cancer, rogue cells that had gone on expedition and lodged in his brain. The remarkable part is that it was small, and the oncologist and surgeon both felt it was removable and with a good prognosis – and so, in his late 70s, my father had a tumour removed from his brain.

The running thread through it all was the chemotherapy and the drugs to treat the side effects of the chemo, the anxiety, the stress, the appointments, the hard days and the long nights, and the slow lingering decline of a man who was once the strongest person I have ever known.

It ended in a palliative care bed in spring. My sisters and mother and I would take turns sitting with him, a man who was quite truly a shadow of his former self as he weighed a fraction of what he had before the cancer struck. One morning an unexpected spring snowstorm occurred, blanketing the city in a thick white blanket, and gazing out his hospital window he said: “I wish I could see spring again.”

He died a few days later. He never saw that spring, or any others after that.

There are those who will trot out the examples of people who never smoked being killed by lung cancer or who disbelieve the link between smoking and cancer. As an adult who still suffers from bronchitis caused by childhood exposure to second-hand smoke and someone who watched my father die I know this: tobacco kills.

My daughter was six when her grandfather died. She has no real memories of him, which is terribly sad, but she does recall visiting him in palliative care and what she saw and recalls is enough to ensure she will never smoke. The link in her mind is crystal-clear: her grandfather’s painful suffering, his body dying even as his mind was perfectly intact, was due to smoking.

The banning of flavoured tobacco in our province will hopefully translate into fewer youth trying tobacco for the first time. The pandering of flavoured tobacco is clearly designed to encourage youth to start smoking and seeing it stopped is a reason to celebrate.

– Connect Weekly –