Yesterday, a colleague and I were debating whether or not to do any public awareness work surrounding Michael Douglas and his recent diagnosis of stage four throat cancer. On the one hand, while certain hospitals practically throw their cancer experts into the public eye as soon as celebrity discovers a suspicious lump somewhere, I find it sort of unseemly to do so – the doctors I represent can’t talk specifically about Douglas’ diagnosis and I am not a big fan of hopping on a bandwagon simply because we can. On the other hand, though, I feel head and neck cancers are particularly important for Pittsburghers to pay attention to because they are so closely linked to lifestyle habits – smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are often linked to diagnosis and Pittsburgh is nothing if not a town in love with cigarettes and cocktails. We decided instead of forcing our experts on local news anchors to instead use our social media tools to run an awareness campaign next week about risk factors – a compromise we both felt comfortable with.
Working in health care communications/pr is a relatively tricky business. We walk along fine lines, encouraging the community to take better care of their health while working to understand the multitude of reasons for the poor choices so many people make on a daily basis. People are naturally resistant to change and even more so to what they perceive as lectures – they do not want to be told their food choices have led to their diabetes or their smoking has led to lung cancer.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially in light of Christopher Hitchen’s recent essay in the Huffington Post declaring he would still smoke as much as he smoked, and drink as much as he drank, even knowing the result would end up with a diagnosis of advanced esophageal cancer. Part of me admires his honesty because I do like to think of Hitchens and his fellow “bohemian writers and thinkers” as the kind of people who never say no to an extra drink, who shower disdain on those of us who quit smoking at an early (ish) age – the kind of people who forge ever onward without giving a whit about the consequences, being as they were born to write and think and challenge the rest of us. Admittedly, I even find their lifestyles glamorous – I’ve always been much more interested in attending the parties that include unlimited booze, intriguing people and overflowing ashtrays than I am, say, in sharing a vegetarian potluck while catching up on episodes of Lost with friends. This should come as no surprise – we’ve discussed before my deep and abiding love for dirty bars and dirty bar food.
But. If I could do things all over again? I never would have started smoking. I can’t say the same about drinking, especially since I am looking very forward to whenever my first glass of red wine will be after I have the baby ( a couple of months after, maybe? I don’t know) but then again, I am a solid 2 drink kind of girl – always good for one, and another always sounds good, but straying into a third is a pretty rare and generally regrettable experience. But smoking? Oh, part of me totally gets where Hitchens is coming from…would I want to sacrifice all the conversations I had with my friends over cigarettes and coffee, cigarettes and wine? What about the illicit smokes during family functions, the smokes during breaks from class in graduate school…
Shit. Maybe I would start all over again.
That said, I am terribly grateful to both myself and to whatever higher power intervened that I have managed to remain quit for a year, and I can truly say I will never start again. I’ve always exercised, and my eating habits have generally been pretty good, albeit not necessarily of the perfect fruits vegetables whole grains and tofu! balance very single day, but quitting smoking once and for all – not just for two days or three months, has made all the difference in the world with how I feel, and how I view the world, and that is what makes me question Hitchen’s opinion about “doing it all over again.”
This is what I believe: until you experience good health, truly good health, unfettered by cigarettes or too much to drink the night before, true health that stems from access to high-quality food and moderate exercise – it’s impossible to know how good it feels. This is why I’m actually doing some work surrounding Michael Douglas’ diagnosis – it’s not just about preventing a painful and, quite frankly, often unnecessary cancer diagnosis – it’s about helping people harness their best health now, while it can be enjoyed and appreciated, and not something to be regretted while hearing bad news on the table in an oncologist’s office.
I know there is so much more to good health than smoking cessation, moderate drinking, healthful eating and exercise – the whole issue is terribly complicated. It’s well-known that the poor among us have less access to healthy food choices, and this post, like most health information, does nothing to address the mental and emotional health issues so often medicated by drugs and alcohol. But I do wonder if Hitchens would say what he said, if he could have experienced the feeling of pure health for a few days…if he felt as good as he possibly could have, would he still find life unimaginable without that second bottle of drink, without the packs of cigarettes? I have no way of knowing, but I hope I can convince my fellow Pittsburghers it’s at least worth a try, for a while – after all, there is nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain.