Had my Dad, Leon Lee Wheeler, survived his NSCS lung cancer diagnosis, he would have turned 84 on March 1st. My earliest memories of Dad’s birthday are of his annual renewed commitment to QUIT smoking. You see, his younger brother died of NSCS lung cancer at 47-years-old. His own mother, after having buried her son due to the ravages of nicotine addiction, died of NSCS lung cancer at 77-years-old. Dad knew that smoking ended badly, and yet was unable to stop.
Occasionally, when the price of his Lucky Strikes went up, he’d attempt to quit again, outside of the routine birthday cycle. I don’t have a single memory of these attempts lasting more than a day or two.
It was not uncommon to find my Dad on the golf course, on the softball field, or besting an unsuspecting opponent on the pool table. As his disease progressed, it would be golf that he missed the most. Dad began caddying at age twelve, and soon after competed in every tournament he could, having won his first tournament at age twenty. But soon after his diagnosis, the cancer had metastasized from his right lung into his right shoulder, encapsulating the root bundle, causing him tremendous pain and rendering him unable to putt short distances, much less swing his beloved driver.
As the eldest and a daughter, managing caregiving and advocating for the best possible medical care fell to me. Soon after his diagnosis, I began to travel often between Colorado and Ohio to accompany my Dad to his doctor’s appointments, and switch off with my Mom (who wasn’t well herself) for his chemotherapy and radiation appointments, field phone calls and see to the insurance forms and other pertinent paperwork.
While nicotine addiction and smoking disrupt the lives of those addicted, it also takes a tremendous toll on the caregiver(s). Without complaint, I served my father with the deference and dignity owed him, as it was my privilege to do so. There is no accounting for the emotional toll watching the man who once taught me to walk, cleaned my fingernails with his pocketknife, fed me cow tongue sandwiches, and let me drive the golf cart while he played, become so ill that he could barely lift his head to see what would be his last birthday cake, before passing a mere four days later, having wished for and reached his 80th birthday.
There was a financial toll, as well. Caregivers aren’t compensated for their efforts. As a small business owner, if I don’t work, I can’t invoice; if I can’t invoice, I am not compensated. In the aftermath of Dad’s passing, I had to recover financially from what I’ve always considered to be the right thing to do, see about my Dad and by extension, my Mom. I was blessed and fortunate in being able to go, and then recover, but this isn’t true for every family.
It is wholly time to increase funding to the CDC and the NIH. And I also believe we must find a way to help those who smoke, to quit; further, that we find a way to support the caregivers as we walk with our loved ones through the final stages of their addiction journey.