How I Quit Smoking: A Cautionary Tale



I'm not sure exactly when I began smoking. There were no laws restricting underage smoking when I was young and cigarettes were dirt cheap (a dollar a carton).

All I can clearly remember is that in the eighth grade I was not smoking and by time the summer between ninth and tenth grade rolled around I was.

Over the next decade and a half I gradually increased to four packs a day.

Yes, really.

When I met my wife, she also smoked. Then she became pregnant and cigarette smoke made her nauseous.

"That's it!" she said. "I'm quitting."

I quit, too, because I didn't want my smoking to make my wife sick. Was it hard? Nope. Piece of cake, actually. Love conquers all.

Then, a few months after our first son was born I came home and there was my wife with a cigarette in her mouth.

"I thought you quit?" I said.

Her answer, along with a shy little smile, was, "Well, not forever."

So I started up again, right back to four packs a day.

Five years later I began having chest pains. I went to the doctor.

He gave me an electrocardiogram and told me my heart was doing a conga dance.

I have never seen a doctor look more serious. He sat me down and began to take down "some basic data." The second or third thing he asked was whether I smoked.

When I answered that I smoked four packs a day, he downed his pencil and told me, "Well, you'll have to cut down before we can even run some tests. That much nicotine in your body can cause any number of symptoms, including the problem you have."

So I quit again.

So did my wife.

Was it hard the second time? No. Wanting to stay alive also conquers, maybe not all, but enough.

I went back to the doctor a month later. He ran some tests and then came back in and apologized.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I had you mixed up with someone who has a bad heart."

"That's me."

"There's nothing wrong with your heart."

"I quit smoking. Could that have made the difference?"

He smiled, "Bingo."

So, I took up a pipe. Fancy aromatic tobaccos. Beautifully carved pipes. Nice leather pouches. Just plain fun and harmless.

A few years later I began teaching high school chemistry. I was allowed to smoke in my office and my lab as long as there were no kids around, but I didn't. I didn't want to encourage them to start smoking so I walked all the way across campus to the lounge.

That soon became very old. I preferred to stay in my lab, running little experiments, creating new lab work for the kids, and just generally enjoying the opportunity to get my hands on equipment I had longed to work with for more than thirty years since I fell in love with science as a young boy.

So I quit entirely. No pipe. Nothing.

About a week later I noticed a burning place on my lower lip. It was nothing new. That was the place where my pipe stem sat. It always burned when I smoked my pipe because tobacco juice ran down the stem onto my lip.

But it made no sense that it should be burning a week after I quit. I turned my lip up and looked in the mirror and saw a grainy, ugly looking white spot. Uh-oh.

"Precancerous," the doctor told me.

"You're very lucky you happened to quit smoking your pipe. Cancer of the lip is a real killer. It spreads. Now that you've removed the irritant, that thing on your lip will either turn into full-blown cancer or it will go away.

"We can operate right now or, if you've got the stuff to handle it, we can wait and watch. What would you like to do?"

I waited and watched. It went away.

That was 30 years ago.

I've always asked myself what would have happened if I hadn't loved teaching science more than I loved smoking that pipe?

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