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Native Intelligence
Thank you for not killing me
(Published August 8, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Something wasn't right.

My cousin, Sari, said she was exhausted and she had not stopped coughing. Her voice was weak and she squeaked like an out-of-tune oboe.

Monday afternoon she called me on the way home from the doctor and, in a matter-of-fact tone, said she had lung cancer. She hadn't smoked in 25 years. She laid out her various options of chemo and lung or lobe removal and her desire to assure her children, who -- as you might guess -- would be terrified, that it was "no big deal."

It may have not been a "big deal" for her, but I was stunned. I don't remember when it finally registered, but all I could recall was that her scientist husband, Paul, who was devastated by the news, said only 20 percent of lung cancer survivors last five years. Okay, so the big-shot scientist had all of the statistics and they were really grim.

After losing my husband to cancer just two years ago, I forced myself to accept reality: Sari was going to die before me (and an excruciating death, at best) and there was nothing I could do to change the situation.

People like Sari are like those irritating people who raise a stink every time some other individual lights a cigarette -- I mean really irritating and obnoxious people who complain about second-hand smoke (and I haven't smoked in 22 years, but I am not as much a "complainer" about it). Now that I have a family member dying from lung cancer, am I going to change my attitude and become yet another obnoxious advocate for a non-smoking environment? Maybe.

The D.C. City Council is under pressure to approve some anti-smoking legislation when it returns from its summer recess in mid-September.

At this juncture in the emotionally driven battle, the anti-smoking coalition is on the defensive -- in part, because Councilwoman Carol Schwartz (a former smoker who hates to be around smokers) has couched the argument in the reasonable tone of "choice."

Schwartz proposes tax credits for non-smoking restaurants and bars, as well as penalties through higher licensing fees for smoking establishments. Most opponents of smoking bans couch their arguments in extreme ways similar to ABC News analyst John Stosell, who has made a reputation out of attacking absolutists as silly and weird.

The "Ban the Ban" coalition, led by the restaurant industry, has taken a similar tact, arguing for ‘freedom of choice" -- but how really free is it? Most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer learn too late to do anything to stop the spread of the disease.

Sari was lucky, because the 3-by-1½ inch tumor (not as big as a baseball but big enough) was pressing on the wall of her lung and forcing her to sound like Minnie Mouse. She caught it earlier than most people.

Thirty percent of people who get lung cancer do not smoke and, even worse is that lung cancer kills more people annually than breast, ovarian and prostate cancer combined.

The anti-smoking campaigns across the country have helped reduce smoking, which is a good thing, but why should I complain about people who are engaging in a smelly behavior that by all accounts is legal for adults? Because it costs me real money in the form of skyrocketing medical bills, as does the legal act of drinking alcoholic beverages. And why should I cause harm to children who, years down the road, are diagnosed with lung cancer? How many more commercials do we need to see with people who have since died lobbying against smoking?

I have never known anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer to do a pro-smoking public service ad. "Yes, folks, I have less than six months to live, but I want to enjoy all my time left on this earth and I plan to smoke to the very end!" Give me a break.

And, of course, we have that pillar of political courage, Mayor Anthony Williams. The mayor, sitting firmly on the fence because an anti-smoking ban in restaurants and bars would send big bucks to Virginia, is (can you believe it?) still undecided.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator