The third Thursday of November is the Great American Smokeout, a tradition started by the American Cancer Society on November 18, 1976. This year I want to mark the occasion by telling a personal story about smoking, and two very special friends of mine.
For many years I went on a fishing trip with some close friends. The couple who took care of the island where we stayed, Sheldon and Carol, were terrific company. In his regular job Sheldon worked as a trucker, and Carol was a homemaker. Sheldon was an unusually funny and intelligent man who told unforgettable jokes. Even more than the jokes themselves, it was Sheldon's delivery that really put them over. Just to convey a small flavor of Sheldon, when the Canadian authorities decided to make everyone, including the old hands, take a test to be fishing guides, he told us the following version of the questions on the test: "If someone falls overboard what do you do? (a) throw them a life preserver or (b) throw them an anchor. My answer was (c) depends who it is". I often thought that if Sheldon had the educational opportunities of Winston Churchill, he also could have been a prime minister.
Every year we met him at the dock, and it was always great to see him. In recent years though, his chain smoking had aged him and his breathing was labored. We would always wonder: "how long can he go on smoking like that?" As if he'd read our minds, he would light up a cigarette and say "well you have to die of something". Carol, his wife, was as good-natured and good-hearted as can be, and also great fun. She made the best macaroni salad in the world, or at least that I've ever had. She also smoked just like Sheldon, one cigarette after the other. You couldn't help wondering how long it could go on for her as well.
Last year, when we arrived for the fishing trip, Sheldon was subdued, not his usual self. He had been coughing up blood and was waiting for the results of a test for lung cancer. Gloom descended over the fishing trip. The first night up there we would always have a party, with Sheldon and Carol joining in eating lobsters, and of course Carol's amazing macaroni salad. For the first time in decades, Sheldon wasn't smoking and he was hoping for the best. We all anxiously waited to hear his test results. They weren't good, and when he came "up lake" to let us know, the first thing he did was light up a cigarette. Knowing I work with smokers, he said "what kind of monsters created the bad feeling I had when I quit?" We didn't say another word about it. Four months later Sheldon was dead. A few months after his funeral, Carol had a massive heart attack and died while her son was driving her to the hospital. This summer was the first time in many years that we didn't make it "up lake".
Dr. Seidman is author of the new book Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit with a foreward by Dr. Mehmet Oz (Fireside Trade Paperback Original, January 2010). An audio book is available from Random House. Dr. Seidman first introduced his own program to stop smoking as a featured expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Dr. Oz early in 2008. For more details about the book go to www.danielfseidman.com