In 1972, I got married. He was an engineer and used to travel a lot. He was a perfectionist, strict to the letter, and would smoke. Nothing I said could make him stop. When he was 45, in 1991, he suffered a mild stroke. Though he reduced his cigarette count, he still couldn’t bring himself to quit. Five years later, a heart attack meant he had to give up smoking altogether. Nine years after that, in 2005, he passed away in his sleep.
It was in 2009 that my voice started getting feeble and the doctors prescribed over-the-counter medications. One year later, I was so breathless that I couldn’t speak. My children rushed me to the hospital. Doctors said it was an ulcer in my vocal cords but I knew they were hiding something. Finally, they said I had throat cancer. I broke down. I had never smoked a cigarette in my life, not hurt a soul, and yet this is what had happened. They said I was a victim of passive smoking, because I sat with my husband while he smoked. I had never heard the term before.
On April 19th 2010, I was wheeled into the Operation Theatre. Doctors cut me open to remove my vocal cords as well as thyroid gland. There was a hole in my neck (called a stoma) and I used to be fed through a PEG tube attached to my stomach. They put in voice prosthesis and I began learning to communicate all over again. Initially, I was very dejected but my children’s constant support gave me the confidence to fight and smile again. It was at 64 that I started learning to use a computer.
I learnt to talk all over again – the alphabet, how to hold my wind pipe so I could speak – and to manage the hole in my neck. Now I breathe through this hole and I am even learning to play the flute through it! I have stitched different bibs to match my sari and cover the hole. During the day, I am a crusader against tobacco and smoking, work with the anti-tobacco cell and also counsel cancer patients! Once a quiet person, today I am very talkative and when the doctor told me that he has invented a hands-free device that would help me talk without holding the stoma, I could not control my excitement! I giggled like a child.
If I had one message for the people, it is simple. Don’t underestimate the threat of passive smoking. Don’t shy away from telling your loved ones not to smoke, for themselves and for you!
A 2004 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization concluded that non-smokers are exposed to the same carcinogens as active smokers. Demand for your right for a cleaner air.