After spending a little vacation time with my family I was reminded about what its been like to be a non smoker in a smoking family. I try to make it clear to all of my family that I don’t judge their decision to smoke, but that I need some consideration from them as the non smoker. For instance, I asked them to open a window when more than one of them smoked in the car because I would get a bit overwhelmed from the smoke. And two, I asked that they wouldn’t smoke in the room I sleep in when I’m there because I normally wake up congested and get a cold because I’m just not used to it. One of my sisters quit for awhile and was surprised when she started feeling bad when around smoke. I used to get some resistence, making me wonder if they thought I was overreacting, but in the past few years, things have been much better.
Here in Chicago a law was passed at the beginning of the year making all public places, like bars and restaurants, smoke free. Although I enjoy it for myself and find myself more interested in going dancing on the weekend knowing I won’t wake up with a sore throat and smelly hair, I know that smokers are judged pretty harshly. I think people forget that we all have our issues and excesses, and all have things that bother other people. We don’t appreciate how hard it is to quit! But I’m very inspired by people who are able to overcome it and often tell my patients that when they share their story. They are usually surprised because I think in part they aren’t used to getting any sympathy much less commendation for their hard efforts. All sympathy goes out the window for someone who suffers an illness because of smoking.
I read an article by a woman whose father died of lung cancer (Elizabeth Egan, Self magazine http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24844538/) and one of the first things the she pointed out was how virtually everyone she told about her dad right away asked if he was a smoker. She admitted that she probably would have asked the same thing before her dad’s illness but also said,
“Now that I’ve been on the receiving end of it, though, I think responding this way to news of a cancer death is misguided — and slightly rude. Do we ask if a victim of a car accident was a good driver?….. [Its as though people think] smokers deserve to die, alcoholics deserve to die, overweight people deserve to die and should not be mourned or felt sorry for.”
Even in health care we use diagnoses like non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver so they can avoid stigmas and especially so their insurance won’t deny their claims! I also read some of the comments to the article mentioned above and was shocked at the judgement and plain cruelty! Its as though people think, pardon me, that their shit don’t stink. Just because their issues aren’t caused by something they ‘ingest’ doesn’t mean they don’t have problems (thin people can have bad cholesterol and workaholics or people with negative attitudes can develop autoimmune issues).
I think it comes down to fear and dealing with that fear in an unfortunate, but instinctual way. Cancer is very scary. It is destructive and indiscriminate; we hardly know how to control it and feeling out of control is not fun. I see this in the hospital too when children die. The parents, at a time when they should just be getting total support and love, are peppered with questions about whether they did everything right to prevent mysterious things like SIDS. People ask questions of them to ease their fears that they might befall the same fate. I pray they don’t but I think we can be better than this, I think we can show more compassion and understanding. After all, that is pretty instinctual too.