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You can smoke, just please not around me

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By Kate Kirzinger, Guest Columnist

I was smoker. I grew up in a small farming community in Central Kentucky and everyone raised tobacco. Despite the fact that my father hated smoking, blaming it for the early deaths of both his parents, I was a smoker. I knew the risks. I knew the effects on my health. I knew I faced the wrath of my father, but I was a smoker.
I am a cancer victim. In July of 2012, I was diagnosed with stage two triple negative breast cancer. My family has no history of breast cancer. None. But, like a friend of mine said, history has to start somewhere. Now my daughter is at a higher risk for breast cancer, and I am at risk of getting it again.
Are those two things related? Yes.
I started smoking during my high school years. My friends smoked. Two of my brothers smoked. My aunt and cousins smoked. While in college, I tried to quit a few times but it never really stuck. I smoked in my car, my dorm room… even the local grocery store had ashtrays at the ends of the aisles. Smoking was a lifestyle to us. We knew it wasn’t good, and I always hated the way my clothes and hair smelled, but after a while it was easy to ignore those things.
When I got married, my military husband was a smoker. We began to talk about having kids, and I was adamant that I would not smoke while pregnant or around my kids. We both quit, at the same time. It wasn’t a smooth transition in a new marriage, but this time it stuck. We moved, we raised kids, we moved again. I swore I’d never smoke again. It was nasty, disgusting habit, and I could tell a smoker from 10 feet away just by the odor. I would roll up my window if a smoker was in a car in front of me. I hated the smell of it.
Fifteen years later, I got divorced. Back in my farming community hometown where not many people raised tobacco any more. Smoking was still relatively common. The local grocery still had ashtrays at the ends of the aisles. People smoked everywhere. As I began to join in on local activities, I met smokers. I was stressed and wanted to change my life from where I’d been, so I picked up a cigarette. I swore I’d never buy any. Then I bought a pack. I refused to consider myself a smoker. Then I bought a carton. I was a smoker. I hated it as much as I loved it. The grip on me was strong. I felt calm and focused when I smoked. Less anxious. Less stressed.
Then my brother died of lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker most of his life, even smoking unfiltered cigarettes for a time. Part of me refused to believe it was totally smoking. After all, he was also a Gulf War vet and had spent time in the Kuwaiti oil fires. It had to be that in combination with the smoking.
In June of 2012, I went in for a routine mammogram. At 44 years old, this is something I did yearly. I’d read articles about how mammograms weren’t necessary every year, and I asked my doctor if I really had to do this. He said he thought it was best. I didn’t think much about it when they called me back in for a second mammogram and an ultrasound. Then they told me they wanted me to have a biopsy. It’s not uncommon for a woman to have a biopsy, and they assured me it was likely nothing. I agreed to have it the next week, and I went home and threw my cigarettes in the trash. I felt the scare was enough, and come what may, I was no longer going to take stupid risks with my health.
It was cancer. Surgery, chemo, radiation. Cut poison burn. I lost my hair. I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without stopping, legs burning and lungs gasping for air. I kept working, kept putting one foot in front of the other until I finally had the energy to look up. Months later, finally feeling better, I went out with friends for a drink. The bar reeked of smoke. My clothes, my hair, even my skin stank. I had to take a shower when I got home, and I threw my clothes in the washer. I couldn’t stand the smell. It made me nauseous. I began to make comments to the friends of mine who still smoked, asking them to not smoke around me. Asking them to quit. Reminding them of what I went through. My students would come into class smelling like smoke and I would tell them my story, show them the scar from where my port had been inserted and removed. Show them pictures of me without hair, of my wigs I would wear. Tell them to quit so they didn’t have to have a story of their own.
I know that people are worried about the slippery slope. That if we ask for smoke-free restaurants and bars then we’ll start banning other things that people enjoy doing. The thing is, while I’m asking you to quit smoking for your own sake, so you don’t have a story like mine to tell, I realize that not all of you will make that choice. So instead, I’m asking you to not smoke around me. To go outside, or someplace else, so that I also can enjoy an occasional night out without adding to my risk of getting cancer again. Let my kids eat in a smoke free restaurant. Let others go into the local laundromat and come out with clothes that don’t smell worse than when they went in.
Please, please contact Sen. Jimmy Higdon and Rep. Terry Mills and ask them to support Smoke-Free Kentucky. If that happens, maybe there will be fewer stories like mine.