Friday, January 8, 2010

The death sentence

My brother-in-law was given a death sentence this week – his doctors say he has four to six months to live. I'm going to tell the story of his illness as best I can.

What it all boils down to is the choices we make in life. He chose to smoke for over 50 years. And, he didn’t smoke a little. He smoked three to five packs a day. Plus he lived with the second hand smoke from his late wife’s cigarette habit. She died of lung cancer about four years ago.

After she died he decided to quit smoking. He read a book about how to quit, and when he finished the book he just did it. He quit. And he was so proud of himself. When we saw him a few months afterward he looked good and seemed fit. He was walking three to four miles a day and he didn’t show any residuals from his former tobacco addiction. And, he was determined to sell his house in Queens and move to Florida to be near his children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, his wellbeing didn’t last long. By March 2009, his knees bothered him so much that he couldn’t walk his daily three or four miles. He needed knee replacement surgery on both of his knees. He booked the surgery and went in for a pre-op physical. It was then that the doctor discovered he had a heart blockage. Instead of knee replacement surgery he had triple heart bypass. He recovered from that surgery and went back to the surgeon about his knees. Again he booked knee surgery. Again he had a pre-op physical. This time the doctor found a suspicious spot on his right lung. Yes, it turned out to be cancer and he had a series of radiation and chemotherapy to combat it. When that was over and he checked out okay, the doctor decided to give his brain a dose of chemo just in case the cancer should decide to migrate there. It was a precaution he was told. And, then he went back for another test. This time there was a spot on his left lung, and that too, turned out to be cancer.

From here on out the story gets grimmer.

He had another bout of radiation and chemo. And, his naturally positive attitude began to go down hill. His voice became raspy as well. Plus the chemo was making him sick to his stomach. New tests showed his cancer has spread to his liver and bones. An MRI taken last week told the doctors there is nothing more they can do for him medically. They told him to get his affairs in order and be prepared to die. They gave him the death sentence.

And as is his way, he will sell his house, clean away his things, and move to Florida and spend what little time he has left with his family there. We asked him to come stay with us, but he’s not willing to do that. He needs to be where he’s most comfortable.

So, another one of my family members is the victim of tobacco. Though my brother didn’t die of cancer – he was cured of the disease 20 years before he died, he died from the effects of tobacco anyway. He had smoked for 30 years.

My paternal grandfather also died as a result of lung cancer. He had been a pipe smoker all of his adult life. He was diagnosed at about age 70 in the mid 1950s – a time when chemotherapy was a thing of the future. The doctors tried surgery to cure him, but found the cancer had already spread, so they closed him up and sent him on his way. They told him he would live about six months, and he surprised us all by living two years – without radiation, without chemotherapy, without anything. Perhaps my brother-in law’s doctors are wrong too. Maybe he can live longer than they predict. I’ll keep good thoughts about that.

It just makes me so sad – and so angry about how horrible the effects of tobacco can be.

I remember the boy who gave me my first cigarette. We were 15 and so proud of ourselves for acting so grown up. And, we thought we were so sexy – just like the couples in all the cigarette ads of the day. I was lucky. I quit – cold turkey after smoking for 15 years – when the Surgeon General’s report of 1964 told of all the nasty effects of smoking. I found out my friend continued smoking another 20 years or so. And, even though he was tobacco free for about 10 years, he ended up dying of lung cancer too.   

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