If you want to get bladder cancer, I recommend smoking

If you want to get bladder cancer, I recommend smoking
Photo by Mary Streepy. "Perk Ashtray." Used with permission of a Creative Commons License.

I’ve written before about my torrid affair with smoking, about lying to my doctors for most of my life about smoking, and about the shame associated with contracting a “smoker’s” cancer.

I smoked my last cigarette on August 27th of 2012. I didn’t know it was my last cigarette, but I haven’t smoked since being admitted to the hospital in the late evening of that day.

I was diagnosed with cancer two days later and was released on the next Thursday evening. When I came home and saw the ashtray on the patio table, I felt like throwing up. My husband kindly cleaned up the reminder.

If you want to get bladder cancer, I recommend smoking. Carcinogens are absorbed into the blood via the lungs and are filtered by the kidneys where they wait in the bladder, sloshing around, daring cells to go rogue.

When I smoked, I worried about lung cancer and emphysema. However, my grandfather, a three-pack-a-day smoker for most of his life, never got cancer. Though his breathing was clearly compromised and coughing filled the house whenever he was there, he didn’t have emphysema either.

I told myself that I wouldn’t get lung cancer because my family’s genes were bullet proof. And, I’d quit long before emphysema could take hold. Besides, I’ve never smoked more than 10 cigarettes a day for an extended period of time.

OK, yeah, there were the weeks of bingeing while I was waiting for a tenure decision. And, OK, the summers in Alaska when I could sit outside until 2 a.m., far away from others, I smoked more than 10.

But there were also months, even a few years when I didn’t smoke at all. I could quit anytime I wanted to. Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Truth is, many people contract bladder cancer and have never smoked a day in their lives. Environmental carcinogens may be responsible for many cases of bladder cancer. We don’t really understand cancer well enough yet to say what causes it.

Let me be clear, nonsmokers get bladder cancer and lung cancer. There is no “prevention” with cancer. There is only risk reduction.

I’m pretty sure that my cancer was caused by smoking. In fact, I tell myself to fully believe that because I don’t want to start smoking again. And, I’m dreaming of smoking again.

I had the privilege of meeting with several bladder cancer survivors at a Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network get together last month. We started talking about smoking. Two folks had never smoked, the rest had. One woman stopped cold after her diagnosis and has never even thought of smoking again. One woman told us her father, a survivor, still smokes.

I talked about shame and guilt. The man sitting across from me lost his bladder to cancer and has never smoked. I have low grade, Stage One cancer and did smoke. Life isn’t fair.

Despite the odds and despite the guilt, the warm summer weather calls me outside and tempts me to smoke. Sitting outside on my patio with a gin and tonic and cigarettes sounds like heaven to me.

Addiction is an odd thing. The woman whose father still smokes can’t understand why he hasn’t quit. But I can because addiction is a beast. The former smoker can’t imagine smoking again, and she says, “I’m one of ‘those’ ex-smokers. You know, militant.” Good for her.

And here I am, free from cigarettes for almost three years, living in the grace of remission, feeling healthier than I’ve felt in many years, and I slow down as I pass the 7-11, thinking I’ll pop in and get a pack. No one will know.

I got the courage last week to tell my support group at the Cancer Support Center about my temptation. It felt good to say it out loud, and they were kind but firm. We brainstormed strategies to avoid giving in. It’s so tempting to judge others, but they just supported me. I know I can call any of them if I need a reminder.

Meanwhile, I appeal to the research-loving part of me. I know that recurrence is much more likely if I return to smoking. Recurrence, and worse, progression, would be devastating. I know that many folks with bladder cancer return to smoking and that I’m vulnerable.

I keep remembering that moment when I returned home from the hospital and saw that ashtray. I don’t want to see it ever again.

Read about this new research study focused on quitting smoking.

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