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FIRST-PERSON: It’s called cancer

NEW ORLEANS, La. (BP)–OK, here’s my story.

A year ago, during my regular semi-annual checkup, my dentist said, “What is this whitish stuff under your tongue?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, who checks under his tongue? Even looking in the mirror, all I could see was what seemed to be saliva, and aren’t we supposed to have saliva there? “You’re seeing things, Doc,” I said. “We’ll keep an eye on it,” he said.

Six months later. “It’s a little more pronounced,” he said. He had to remind me what he was talking about.

A few weeks ago, even I could see it. It was just a silvery film, surely nothing to be concerned about. The dentist prescribed an antifungal mouthwash, thinking it could be a yeast infection. When it did not respond, he sent me to an oral surgeon.

The doctor put me to sleep and sliced off a sliver of the offending flesh. For a week, I carried around a swollen tongue and drank only juices before it began to return to normal. Then, Margaret and I went in for the pathology report.

Carcinoma in-situ. Squamous cells. In other words, cancer. The kind that usually smokers and drinkers get.

“But you’re neither,” the doctor said. “You’re a preacher.” I was tempted to leave it there, but I had to admit that there was a pipe in my closet. Three of them in fact. And a half can of “Captain Black” tobacco. Even though I haven’t smoked a pipe in ages, I used to.

It was 30 years ago. A dear preacher friend, my mentor in a hundred ways, smoked a pipe. It looked so relaxing, and it surely was non-habit forming, or so I thought, that I mentioned to my wife I might want to start. At Christmas, she gave me a gift certificate to a local pipe and tobacco shop, and I was off.

I used to make a little joke that went like this. “Baptists think cigarette smoking is worldly. They think smoking cigars makes you look like a Pharisee. But smoke a pipe and they’ll call you spiritual.” It’s not true, of course, but it does pick up on the respectability of pipe smoking, as opposed to its less reputable brothers.

At various times over the next decade, I smoked the pipe regularly, usually at night on my back porch. Never in the house, rarely in the car. It truly was relaxing to me, although not to the extent that it appeared or that I wanted. Finally, when it got through to me that it never actually tasted as good as it smelled, and that my tongue needed 24 hours to recover from one bowlful, I quit. Over the next decade or two, I might have smoked a bowl a month, if that. That’s why I was surprised when the doctor said smoking the pipe had given me cancer.

As a minister, I surely would have preferred that my cancer be mysterious and not of my own doing. That way, I could claim all those terrific Scriptures about suffering for righteousness. Alas, as with much of the suffering we undergo in this life, mine is self-inflicted. I did this to myself.

Ten days before Christmas, I entered the hospital and my doctor removed all the cancerous material under the tongue. Then he went into my sinus cavities and esophagus and lungs, taking little pieces of me to send out for analysis. That was three weeks ago, as I write this, and my voice is still weak and somewhat hoarse from being messed with. The tongue healed nicely, although there is still a deadness underneath that seems to be lessening. My wife and I are the only ones who can hear the lisp with which I’m speaking these days.

All the reports came back good. The doctor says he got all the cancer. But, lest I think this is all over, he says we need to do radiation.

Radiation treatment anywhere is chancy and dangerous, but aiming that gun around the head and neck brings special concerns. As the orthodontist pointed out, “The saliva glands underneath your gums are what protects the teeth from decay. Radiation kills those glands, kills them permanently. As a result, decay can set in and you’re in big trouble. You could end up losing your jawbone.” He had my full and undivided attention.

That’s why I did my first fluoride treatment the other night. The way I understand it, the fluoride is supposed to seep into the gums and harden the teeth and protect the glands. You squeeze fluoride out of a tube — it looks like clear toothpaste — into a “tray” made to fit my teeth. Ten minutes on the bottom, followed by 10 minutes on the top, then 30 minutes without food or drink. Each night. Starting now. For the rest of my life.

These days, my life has been taken over by visits to doctors in preparation for the radiation treatments scheduled to start later this month. I’ve sent out a letter to local leaders in our work, asking for their prayers and telling them how life is going to be for me the next couple of months. It should come as no surprise to any of them. Everyone knows someone who has had cancer. In fact, one of the most encouraging signs I know is that cancer survivors are all around us.

Two ministers with Franklin Graham’s evangelistic organization have been in and out of New Orleans recently, meeting with some of us trying to plan for a future meeting. The other night, I was asking one of them for prayer, when he said, “Did you know both Tom and I have cancer?” I was shocked. Not “had” but “have.” Skin cancer in one and the other prostate. We agreed to exchange prayers.

After getting the first pathology report, the one that first used the word “cancer,” I called both my sons and said to them, “Son, you know that pipe of yours? And that Skoal you sometimes use? It hates you. It wants to see your children end up as orphans.” I promised myself I won’t say anything else to them about tobacco.

One of my boys said, “I’ve quit smoking several times before. But when my job got stressful, I picked it up again.” Then he said, “Don’t say anything else to me about this. Just pray for me.” Fair enough. I promised.

Last Saturday, at the family farm in Alabama, I joined a group of birdhunters who had built a fire at the edge of the field and were sitting around, swapping stories. They had heard of my cancer, so we talked about that a little. Then I said to one of the men present, “I told my son about you, how you quit smoking when you were — what? — 27? I told him you just made up your mind and walked away from it.” He didn’t say anything, and then I remembered his wife had said he was smoking cigars much too frequently these days. I said, “How old were you when you quit?” He laughed and said, “The first time, I was 27. The second time is today. I just quit.”

The nurse in the office of the radiation oncologist said today, “We’ve had people in here who never smoked, but who breathed in secondary smoke from their parents and got cancer.” She said, “Maybe the Lord wants you to help get the word out about the dangers of tobacco.”

In a doctor’s office the other day, I picked up a brochure on “Raising Kids Who Don’t Smoke: Peer Pressure and Smoking.” I was a little suspicious at first because the leaflet comes from the Philip Morris Company. I mean, isn’t this a little like the ads telling you to get help for gambling addiction, placed there by your neighborhood casino?

But, the brochures seem safe enough. I recommend them for your teens. You can get them at the Philip Morris website www.philipmorrisusa.com. Or write to “Youth Smoking Prevention”, P.O. Box 34336, Washington, DC 20078-1694.

I’ve heard people scoff at the drug program which calls on young people to “Just Say No.” They dismiss this as unrealistic in our sophisticated and complex world. But there is one group of people for whom it is precisely what they need to hear: young adolescents, pre-teens. The first time they are exposed to drugs, alcohol or tobacco, saying “no” is surely the way to go. Someone needs to prepare them for these issues, and the time for that is before they meet the issues face to face.

What I didn’t realize years ago was that just because my wonderful Christian friend was using tobacco did not make it right.

The mechanic says in the television commercial, “Pay me now or pay me later.” That, in a few words, is the whole story on tobacco.

Look around. A lot of us are paying later.
Joe McKeever is director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

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