My cancer time bomb

A child smoker who quit now fears that the first puff was the worst.

Published April 20, 1999 7:35PM (EDT)

My first time was in our garage. I was 8. It was with one of my father's
Kents. At 12, I was already worrying over my weekly pre- and after-school consumption of a dozen Tareytons, Newports, Lucky Strikes
and other brands we lifted from our mothers', fathers' and older siblings'
packs. I don't remember liking the taste much, but I loved the rituals of smoking: tapping the butt end against the pack, striking the match, drawing in that first sulfuric drag and watching the milky stream of smoke leave my mouth and nostrils. Flicking the ash with my index finger, I felt sophisticated, in control and very grown-up.

It would take another seven years before Gore Vidal showed me the way to
freedom. At 19, I was up to two-and-half packs a day, (unfiltered Camels) when I came across Vidal's Playboy interview. For some reason, his sneer about smoking -- a "psychological crutch" -- leapt off the page. "Gore, you're right," I said and crushed out my last cigarette in an ashtray overflowing with butts.

Eleven years after my first illicit smoke, I had kicked the habit, and it's
been clear breathing ever since. Sort of. There was one endless night of
nausea in 1971 when I was a foolhardy Peace Corps volunteer in
French West Africa and sampled an Italian brand on sale in the
village shop. And then there was marijuana, but that's another story. Even so, it's been more than 15 years since I've let anything but second-hand smoke invade my lungs. Depending on the active ingredient, I've been an ex-smoker since 1969 (nicotine) or 1984 (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).

I worried about lung cancer, but as each year passed, I felt a little less
paranoid, comforted by the message from health officials that quitting, no
matter when, lessened the chances of smoking-related illness. As the distance between me and my life as a smoker grew wider, I imagined my lungs growing stronger, the cilia in my bronchial tubes waving like Kansas wheat, all my respiratory systems strengthening their resistance to the carcinogenic properties of my youthful indiscretions.

But this December I turn 50, part of that baby boom bump in the demographic snake. And along comes word -- in a new study published this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that links childhood smoking with genetic damage that may bring on lung cancer no matter how long ago you quit -- that all those smoke-free years may not matter.

Because what seemed to matter most in the study was not how much or how long you smoked, but how young you were when you started. Those weren't just smokes back then, four-inch crutches propelling me through the crucible of adolescence; researchers believe they may be cancerous time bombs. God, I hope they're wrong, because while I used to be relatively relaxed about my smoking past, right now I'm scared shitless.

Besides terrifying me, the news has set me to remembering, putting me on the trail of smoke, wisps of memory and above all, lingering scents of
regret. I want to remember why that little boy I was
thought it was so cool, so vital, to smoke. As an adult I am not
convinced by the anti-smoking ads on TV. The very fact that adults are trying to keep you from doing something is what makes it attractive.

I smoked as a kid because I thought it might make up for my short stature,
my lack of body hair, the squeak in my voice and the terror I felt around
the opposite sex. If on the basketball court I was a total klutz, incapable
of making a simple layup, I could blow smoke rings around anybody. After
sophomore year, I was incapable of passing a math course, but I was a master of the French inhale. Terrified by uncontrollable erections, the most
reassuring bulge for me was a pack of Luckies in my shirt pocket.

We smoked in packs. Peter Byrne, Brian McNamee, Jimmy Curley and I would hightail it into the woods, holing up at Peter's house where the traces of his working mom's smoking masked our own. Too young to buy cigarettes, we relied on machines as our dealer, like the one in the lobby of the apartment building where I delivered the afternoon Greenwich Time. While one of us kept lookout for the doorman, I would feed the change (30 cents, I recall). In unison we'd send up a chorus of coughing to conceal the noisy mechanical delivery.

But every time I lit up a cigarette, in the woods behind Julian Curtiss
school in the Connecticut suburb where I grew up, I had to head off into the
bushes (nicotine seemed to stimulate my bowels more than anything). After
just a few drags, my temples throbbed like Japanese taiko, drumming that
wouldn't let up until the next morning, if I were lucky.

I wouldn't have admitted it then, but I was hooked. A distinct memory: I'm
about 12, lounging in the grass above the elementary school with my buddies puffing away. "I gotta quit," I tell them. And I try. When I got a cold, even the thought of a cigarette sickened me, but not for long. By the time I entered college, I had probably quit 10 times, but cigarettes became the ideal accessory for all-nighters, rehearsals at the college playhouse and nights spent listening to "Buffalo Springfield" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," especially when the pot ran out.

But then came Gore's comment. I'm not sure why his obvious conclusion that smoking was a psychological crutch finally hit home. Educators speak of the "teachable moment." Perhaps that was mine.

I finished college and went on to become a newspaper reporter. Even in the smokiest newsrooms I was never tempted to light up again and no one else was more self-righteous about the evils of smoking. So much so, I wanted to write a story about what it was like to die of it. So in 1986 I wrote a story about a Florida retiree named Joseph DeMilio. Like me, Joe had begun smoking as a child, but he had never been able to quit until he was diagnosed with lung cancer in his 60s. His ordeal began with a cough on Thanksgiving and ended with his death on Mother's Day -- a shunt pumping chemo drugs into his brain. His widow was considering suing the tobacco companies. I rejoiced that I had quit nearly three decades before. I was going to be safe. But now that smugness has vanished, replaced by the fear that my genes may not have forgotten the habit I thought I had given up for good.

By Christopher Scanlan

Chip Scanlan is a writer in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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