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I’ve been asked a lot of questions since first appearing in the Tips from Former Smokers PSA. I’ve been asked about my symptoms, about my book, whether I still have a colostomy bag, and a number of other questions.
One of the most common questions I’m asked is: “How did you quit smoking?”
In this video I reveal the secret to how I finally quit smoking and using all tobacco products. It’s not a “secret” at all, really. But for those who want to know, here it is. It’s a little longer than most of my videos because I expanded on three important points that contributed to my quitting (There’s also a reference to something I learned from Tony Robbins). Bear with me, however. I think it’ll be worth it.
Last summer, while I was finishing my book, Semicolon, for publication, I was contacted by the Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA). I established a relationship with the CCA because I decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Semicolon to that organization. The CCA representative told me that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were looking for someone who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer while they were smoking to be in a public service announcement for the CDC’s 2015 Tips from Former Smokers Campaign. I thought, “What a fantastic way to give back and not only encourage smokers to quit but also to encourage people to get screened for colon cancer!”
I was given the contact info for the person to contact and I reached out to them. We exchanged a few e-mails. Then I filled out a questionnaire and sent it in. Then they sent an affidavit for my doctor to review and sign (regarding the link between smoking and my colorectal cancer diagnosis). That was followed by a Skype interview with the ad writers, a telephone interview with a CDC doctor, another interview with a attorney, and so on. I didn’t know for months if I would be chosen, but every step of the way I was believing for God to use me the way He wanted to.
The idea of directly impacting millions of people across the country to quit smoking and get screened for colon cancer was amazing to me. As anxious as I became at times, my wife encouraged me to leave it in God’s hands.
Finally, I got the call and was invited to go to the New York area to film the public service announcement and do the photo shoot for the print campaign. Initially it didn’t sink in. I became excited and then felt absolutely overwhelmed. It was happening. This was real. I thanked God and I remember praying, “Whatever happens, let my experience save lives.”
There is much more to tell about the experience — the filming, photo shoots, radio ad recording, etc. — but for now I’ll fast forward to this week. My family flew to Atlanta to participate in the CDC press conference this past Thursday, at which they announced the launch of the new, 2015 Tips from Former Smokers Campaign.
I’m proud to call all of them friends and I couldn’t be more proud of them for not only overcoming their own challenges, but also for quitting smoking and for participating in this campaign and sharing their stories so that other people may be inspired to quit smoking.
We’re all making a difference. According to CDC Director Dr. Frieder, each of us will be responsible — through our ads — for saving more lives in the 20 weeks that the ads will run than the average American doctor will save in their entire career. That’s a sobering thought, and an awesome reality.
Below are my and Julia’s 30 second ad, followed by my two vignettes. I invite you to watch them, to learn more about my story, which I detailed in my book, Semicolon.
CDC: Tips From Former Smokers – Julia and Mark’s Ad
CDC: Tips From Former Smokers – Mark’s Story
CDC: Tips From Former Smokers – Mark’s Military Service and Illness
More than anything I’ve ever written or created, I hope you will share these videos with someone you care about.
CDC’s graphic anti-smoking campaign will air March 30
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching its 2015 “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign with a series of powerful new ads featuring former smokers who suffer from smoking-related illnesses, including vision loss and colorectal cancer.
Ads also highlight the benefits of quitting for smokers’ loved ones, and the importance of quitting cigarettes completely, not just cutting down. Beginning March 30, these ads will run for 20 weeks on television, radio, billboards, online, and in theaters, magazines, and newspapers.
CDC’s successful Tips national tobacco education campaign has helped prompt millions of smokers to try to quit since it began in 2012. It has also proven to be a “best buy” in public health by costing just $393 to save a year of life.
“These former smokers are helping save tens of thousands of lives by sharing their powerful stories of how smoking has affected them,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “These new real-life ads will help smokers quit, adding years to their lives and life to their years.”
In 2014, Tips ads had an immediate and strong impact. When the ads were on the air, about 80 percent more people called the national quitline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, for free help. Since 2012, Tips ads have generated more than 500,000 additional calls to the toll-free quitline number.
One of this year’s new ad participants is Marlene, 68, who started smoking in high school and began losing her vision to macular degeneration at age 56. Besides quitting smoking, the best chance for slowing her vision loss is a drug that must be injected through a needle into her eyes. To date, she has had more than 100 shots in each eye. “This will probably go on for the rest of my life,” said Marlene. “If I’d had a crystal ball many years ago, I would never have put that first cigarette in my mouth.”
The ads also feature:
- Mark, 47, an Air Force veteran who used cigarettes and smokeless tobacco through two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf. He quit in 2009 when he developed rectal cancer at age 42.
- Julia, 58, who smoked for more than 20 years before developing colon cancer at age 49, followed by surgery and months of chemotherapy. She needed an ostomy bag taped to a hole in her abdomen to collect waste.
- Tiffany, 35, whose mother died from lung cancer when Tiffany was 16. She quit smoking when her own daughter turned 16 so she could be around for important milestones in her daughter’s life. Tiffany’s ad will run as a public service announcement.
- Kristy, 35, who tried using e-cigarettes to quit smoking cigarettes but ended up using both products instead of quitting. Kristy then suffered a collapsed lung, and was diagnosed with early COPD (lung disease) before she quit smoking completely.
Nationally, about 3 in 4 adult e-cigarette users also smoke cigarettes. If you only cut down the number of cigarettes you smoke by adding another tobacco product, like e-cigarettes, you still face serious health risks. Smokers must quit smoking completely to fully protect their health — even a few cigarettes a day are dangerous. Kristy’s ads will be featured on the radio and in print.
“All the Tips ad participants are heroes,” said Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., senior medical officer in CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “By courageously sharing their painful personal stories, they’re inspiring millions of Americans to make the life-saving decision to quit smoking.”
Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year and remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. For every American who dies from a smoking-related disease, about 30 more suffer at least one serious illness from smoking.
The Tips ads encourage smokers to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or to visit www.cdc.gov/tips to view the personal stories from the campaign. The website includes detailed assistance developed by the National Cancer Institute to support smokers trying to quit.
Besides the human cost, smoking takes a devastating toll on our nation’s economy. It costs more than $300 billion a year—nearly $170 billion in direct medical care for adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity. The Tips campaign serves as an important counter to the more than $8.3 billion spent annually by the tobacco industry to make cigarettes more attractive and more affordable, particularly to young people.
To find profiles of the former smokers, other campaign resources, and links to the ads, visit www.cdc.gov/tips.
Originally published August 09, 2009
Last Monday, August 3rd, I had my consult with the radiation doctor. I got a run down of the treatment plan and was scheduled for a couple more tests. The following day (Tuesday) I went back in for the preliminary CT scan. For more details, read on.
Let it Glow, Let it Glow, Let it Glow
When I arrived at the South Sacramento Cancer Clinic for my consultation with the radiation doctor on Monday I went in, filled out some forms and waited for my name to be called. A short while later I was taken back and introduced to the newest addition to my “team” of physicians. She’s a nice older Jewish lady, with a grandma-esque quality about her. To round out the picture she also has a hint of an East Coast accent. I’m from Massachusetts originally so her overall presence was calming to me.
We talked about the radiation treatments, coupled with chemotherapy, and all of the possible side effects. The side possible effects range from fatigue to hair loss (all over the body, not just the head) and inflammation. The treatments will be five days a week (except holidays) for five weeks.
While the possible side effects are somewhat frightening, the reality is that I will be receiving a “pre-operative dose” of radiation, not a “curative dose.” Essentially, I’ll receive half the cumulative dose of radiation that someone with prostate cancer would receive. As a result, I’m told I will likely see few side effects and most of those will likely be only toward the end of the treatment program.
I asked about the possibility of gaining super powers from the radiation. She said with a smile, “I haven’t seen that with a patient yet.” I still haven’t given up hope that I may yet gain the ability to fly, cling to walls or turn invisible.
The goal of the treatments is to kill as many cancer cells as possible and reduce the size of the tumor prior to the surgery. My newest doctor (“grandma”) told me that this has been shown to be the most effective treatment for this kind of cancer. Different doctors have made encouraging comments about this treatment, including one who said “Radiation will dramatically reduce the size of the tumor. That’s good.” Damn straight, that’s good! So I remain optimistic.
The doctor gave us a new packet with information brochures and other papers, including a kit for completing a Living Will. I plan to get that done soon. If getting colorectal cancer at age 42 has taught me anything it’s that it’s not a bad thing to be prepared for the unexpected.
What’s One More CT Scan Between Friends?
The next day I went back to the Cancer Center to have a preliminary CT scan done. I went in, changed into the gown and laid down on the scanner bed. There the technician lined me up ever so precisely, using red laser beams that were projected onto the bed (and me) as a guide. As I lay there, face down, and the table started to move I couldn’t help but imagine myself sliding across the scanner at the grocery store and wondered what would show up on the register. A price? “Item not found?”
The technician marked three Xs on me with a Sharpie – one on each hip and one around the bottom of my tail bone. These he covered with small circles of surgical tape. Before my first treatment they will mark small “tattoo” dots on my skin where the Xs are, for use with aligning my body for the procedure. It’s strange to think of having permanent markers as a reminder of this period in my life. But not as strange as the thought of dying. Given the option, I’ll take the tattoo dots.
In regards to the procedure itself, they’ll be shooting three powerful “X-Rays” at the tumor, from three different angles (thus the three Xs). The beams will all go through the tumor, giving it the full, cumulative dose of all three beams. Any healthy tissue in the path of the individual beams will only have one third the total dose thus minimizing damage to healthy tissue.
Five days a week for five weeks.
Things to Come
My appointments will be in the afternoon, so I plan to keep going to work, like normal, just leaving a few minutes early each day for the appointment. The treatments will only last 10 minutes or less, I’m told, after which I’ll head home to rest up for the next day.
Barring any new found ability to fly or teleport I’ll be driving myself to and from work and the treatments. It may be that no one notices any changes in me. That would be great.
Whatever happens, I am ready to begin this stage. I have felt held in the grip of uncertainty and a little fear, and not a little anger, since the discovery of the tumor on July 17th. I am a fighter. I hate feeling helpless. Anyone who knows me knows that I would much prefer to confront an issue head on. That includes this issue. I’m ready to start the bombardment of this foreign invader.
Once More for Old Time’s Sake
Friday, August 7th, I headed over to the Morse Avenue hospital for yet another procedure. I was heading for another (partial) sigmoidoscopy with an ultrasound. The idea is to determine if the tumor had grown through the wall of the colon and, if so, how far.
This condition seems to bring out the need for all manner of digits and machinery to be inserted into one’s nether region. Why all these doctors can’t get together and take care of all these things during one procedure is beyond me. But I digress.
I found the people at this facility to be less friendly than at my regular facility. I likened the experience to moving cattle through wooden chutes and into pens and onto trucks.
The procedure itself was much like I had gone through before. It was painful, and there was much cramping and grunting. Frankly, if we could legally use this procedure to obtain suspect statements in law enforcement we would see a huge increase in confessions and conviction rates pushing 100%.
Did I mention that I hate these procedures? One was bad enough. Three in as many weeks is over kill.
Afterward the doctor said “I’m sorry for the discomfort.” All I could say was, “It’s necessary. I need to beat this. It’s one step on the way to killing it.” He looked at me for a moment and nodded.
All in All It’s Just Another Brick in the Wall
The ultrasound showed that the tumor has, indeed, grown through the wall of the colon and that “it may be impinging on the intestine.” The doctor could not confirm the latter. Perhaps the upcoming PET scan would shed more light on it. If not, then they will know once I’m in surgery.
It is what it is. One step at a time.
That brings us to today. This morning I went back to the Morse Avenue hospital for the PET scan. No eating or drinking for six hours prior to the procedure. No problemo. I’m a pro at the whole no eating, clear liquid diet, flush out your colon thing, so this was a snap.
After being dosed with radioactive glucose and “marinating” for a half hour, I went in for yet another CT scan (this makes three now) plus a comprehensive PET scan. The scan itself lasted about a half hour, during which I fell asleep (requiring the technician to come in and wake me up so I could hold my head straight).
After a few hours, everything was done and I headed home. I’ll find out the results of the PET scan from one of my army of doctors in the coming days, I’m sure.
The Days Ahead
My next – and final – appointment before my treatment begins is this Tuesday. I’ll be having a consultation with the Oncology folks about the chemotherapy. My radiation doctor tells me that I may be given a pump to wear (ick!) but that I will more likely be given the option of chemo pills to take.
Pills are good. I’m sick of getting poked.
The chemicals in the pills apparently go into your bloodstream and, upon reaching the liver, are converted to the “chemo” chemical that kills the cancer cells and makes them more susceptible to the radiation. Of course, the same stuff also can make your hair fall out, make you see sounds and smell colors, etc. But like I always say, one step at a time.
After that, the following week, I will begin my treatments.
After this flurry of consultations and procedures I am so ready to start zapping this cancer, I can hardly express it. All of my discomfort, lack of sleep, and emotional ups and downs I try to channel into a kind of aggression toward this tumor. I want it dead, though I’ll settle for shrunken down and excised.
I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize some of the people who have helped make this journey more bearable. Of course my wife and mother, who have always been stalwart supporters of mine and helped see me through all manner of B.S. through the years. I want to extend my appreciation, too, to my extended family, friends and co-workers, who have given me added strength from their words, thoughts and prayers.
I love you all.
Last Wednesday, July 29th, I went for my consultation with my GI surgeon. In a nutshell, the tumor has grow into the wall and he’s recommended radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor prior to surgery. On Thursday, the 30th, I had a CT scan on Thursday. For a more detailed depiction, read on.
I checked in for the appointment and was soon after ushered inside where I underwent the “height, weight, temp, oxygen level and blood pressure” routine. Everything was more or less in the normal range. My weight was slightly down (again). Then it was into the exam room where I donned the infamous “gown that ties in the back.” The doctor, you see, would need to examine me himself.
I still don’t understand why, with all of our technological advances, there is a need for repetitive (not to mention invasive) examination of one’s “final frontier,” but the need was there. I could almost buy the surgeon’s rationale: “I need to see for myself what we’re dealing with.” Well, he is the one who’s going to be opening me up and cutting out the rotten pieces, so to speak. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to humor him, if only to stay on his good side.
So I knelt before the half-length table with my chest on the top. He then activated a switch that hoisted my back end upward, pointing it toward the top of the far wall like some sort of human field artillery piece. I was tense and apparently the assistant could tell this (maybe because I grunted and buried my face in the pillow) so she came over and started rubbing my shoulders. My initial reaction was indignation, which was quickly replaced with gratitude.
The examination was brief, thank goodness. I got dressed and the three of us (me, Margaret and Dr. Roe) met in the consult room where he laid it out for us. Here’s what we learned.
First, the tumor is very low in the colon, however. It’s so low that it’s actually in the area called the rectum. So, technically, I have rectal cancer. The cancer has grown into the wall of the “colon” (it’s still hard to bring myself to say or write “rectum”) and may have spread outside of it. This has yet to be determined.
Medical advances allow them to remove a good portion of the rectum and reattach the colon to even a short piece of rectum, thus avoiding the need for a colostomy bag. This was his goal in my case. Quite frankly, any time someone wants to save my ass – either figuratively or literally – I feel a certain indebtedness to them.
Prior to the surgery, however, he wants me to undergo radiation therapy, coupled with chemotherapy for the first and last treatment. The goal is to shrink the tumor and minimize the amount of tissue (read “rectum”) that he will need to remove, thus avoiding the need for the bag. Big thumbs up for this.
The radiation and chemo treatments would be done five days a week for four or five weeks, followed by four to six weeks of recovery before the surgery. This is to allow the inflamation to go down and give my body a chance to recover.
I think Marge took the news a little harder than I did. I confess this whole thing scares me a little but I had already accepted the situation and some of the various possibilities so nothing really came as a shock to me. I was still treating everything rather matter-of-factly. Marge, on the other hand, was rather sober about it all. I remember feeling bad for her, though I tried to cheer her up a bit. I think I failed.
Something For the Pain
The doctor said one thing that did surprise me.
“I’d like to prescribe you Vicodin for the pain,” he said.
“But I’m not really experiencing any pain,” I replied. That didn’t dissuade him, thankfully.
“You’re having frequent urges to go to the bathroom that aren’t productive, aren’t you?” he asked. He had me there.
“Well, yes,” I said.
“That’s a form of pain. Pain you shouldn’t have to go through. This will help.”
Well, Hell’s bells, I thought! Bring forth the Vicodin!
The doctor gave us some literature to take home and made a referral to the radiation and oncology clinics for consultations, the next step toward the aforementioned treatments. He also wanted an ultrasound. The latter was too simple-sounding so I assumed it would be another uncomfortable procedure. (I would later be proven right.)
After gathering the materials and our thoughts, we left. I remember thinking that I was still happy to be able to eat solid food following the previous day’s colonoscopy. We went to the pharmacy and picked up my prescription of Vicodin. I quickly downed one. Within 15 minutes or so the discomfort was gone. I felt better than I had in months! No more scooting to the bathroom every 15 to 30 minutes. No more pressure in my lower abdomen. I felt as though I could return to a more-or-less normal daily routine.
I’d found my new best friend and her name is Hydrocodone.
Wednesday night I had to drink a bottle of barium sulfate suspension, which was flavored with banana. In fact, the elixir had “banana smoothie” on the label. The barium sulfate would help generate greater contrast in the computer tomography (CT) scan so that all of my bits and pieces could be seen clearly, or something like that.
I have to say that compared to the gallon of Colyte I had to drink a couple of days before, this barium sulfate tasted like a, well, a banana smoothie. Actually, it was like an ultra bland yogurt smoothie with enough banana extract to smell like a banana smoothie without actually tasting enough like one. Even so, it was tolerable. So down it went.
The next day, Thursday, I was scheduled for my CT scan. I could not eat anything that morning nor drink anything after 10 am. This was easy as pie, having endured several days of clear liquid diet over the last week or so. Then I drank the second bottle of barium sulfate an hour before the appointment. I was all prepped and ready for the scan.
Hey Now, You’re A Rock Star. Get Your Game On
Marge and I went to the hospital, checked in at the radiology clinic and waited a short while. We had yet to wait an inordinate amount of time, which was odd for an HMO. We go to the South Sacramento center, however, which may have something to do with it.
I was escorted back and told to change into a strange hospital gown I had never seen before. It looked like some sort of Bedouin robe with multiple arm and neck holes and more ties than I knew what to do with. I tried to figure out how to put it on but was unsuccessful. Swallowing my pride I opened the door of the dressing room and asked the technician how to put it on.
The technician, a Hispanic male in his late thirties, looked all the world like the lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. He talked a little fast and I was concerned that he would be the “all business,” zero empathy sort of guy who dripped testosterone. I felt anxious, vulnerable and somewhat insecure. My first impression was way off, thankfully. He seemed perplexed as to why I was given the arachnid robe and fetched me another, simpler one to wear.
With the new robe on I walked out of the dressing room and was ushered onto the table. We chatted a bit as he was setting me up. Turns out he was a radiation technician in the Air Force and retired from same. I mentioned I had been a Security Policeman in the Air Force, if only to establish some sort of commonality and rapport with the guy who was about to insert an IV into my arm. I haven’t had good luck with IVs of late, you see.
You Might Feel Like You Peed On Yourself
The technician went on to explain the whole process to me, along with what to expect throughout the entire procedure. First there would be an IV inserted into my arm, which would introduce radioactive dye into my blood.
“You may feel a sensation of warmth in your chest, throat and, when the dye makes it’s way to your bladder, you may feel like you just peed your pants,” he told me.
What the hell? Great. I could hardly wait to feel stifling warm with a lap full of piss.
“You won’t actually pee your pants, so don’t worry. It will only feel like it,” he assured me. “It’s normal. You’re young enough, though, that you may feel very little.” Okay. That made me feel a little better but I was still anxious.
He started the IV and asked me how I was feeling.
“Fine,” I said, experiencing none of the effects he had described.
“Good. Chances are you won’t feel anything, then.” And, thank the stars, I didn’t. The scan itself lasted only a few minutes and soon I was dressed and headed for the exit. Before I left the technician said something that caught me by surprise.
“Good luck, sir. I hope the test comes back negative. Our prayers will be with you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I already knew I had cancer. Prayers, I decided, are always welcome. I walked back to him and shook his hand.
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”