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Graham was 13 years old when he tried his first cigarette

I was brought up in an era where the Marlboro man told you it was cool to smoke. My parents and grandparents smoked. I used to be sent to the local milk bar to buy my mother’s viscount cigarettes and my father’s tobacco.

My name is Graham Scown and I am 61 years old. This is my story. 

I was brought up in an era where the Marlboro man told you it was cool to smoke, when watching movies on TV showed me all the cool guys who smoked always won the fights and always got the beautiful girl. Both of my parents and grandparents smoked. I used to be sent to the local milk bar to buy my mother’s viscount cigarettes, and my father’s tobacco. I thought ‘one day I wanted to be like my dad and smoke.’

At the age of 13 I was in high school and decided that instead of using my bus money to catch the bus to school, I would buy a 10-packet of viscount cigarettes, and walk to school instead. I vividly remember lighting-up the first one and inhaling the smoke. I got dizzy and started having a coughing fit. I thought I was going to die. I tried a second puff and the same sensation happened. So I hid the packet under a rock and continued on my way to school, thinking that I’d never smoke again.

About a year later I could see the cool kids at school were smoking behind the hall. As I walked they called me over and offered me one. I remembered the first time and the coughing fit, but I wanted to be accepted. So I had one cigarette, I coughed, but persisted because I was being laughed at. It gradually became easier and in the next few weeks I bought a packet myself. I wanted to look cool smoking behind the hall too. That was my introduction to smoking.

Between the ages of 18 and 30 years I was going out to discos and pubs a lot with my mates. We were getting drunk and smoking cigarettes. The funny thing was that my mates got all the girls and I wouldn’t, despite thinking that smoking would make me more attractive. I would also lose three out of four fights. I started to think that maybe I was not as cool or tough as I had imagined. When I was in my 30’s and 40’s I started to hear that smoking was not good for you and could cause cancer. But my father smoked all his life and (at that time) he was still alive and cancer-free. I thought I was in control of my smoking and could stop easily at any time. But I didn’t realise the number of addictive chemicals added to the tobacco. 

When I was between the ages of 40 and 50 years old a pattern had emerged; I subconsciously lit-up constantly - after food, after coffee and waking up each morning. I enjoyed the taste and most of my work mates still smoked too. When I was 45 I started feeling breathless when doing things. Tasks I had once done easily were now physically demanding. But I upheld the belief that I could stop at any time. However between the ages of 50 and 57 years old I tried, multiple times, to quit. And I couldn’t. My friends started trying to quit too. But after a week or two we would light-up again.  I finally got the courage to try again. This time I used nicotine replacement therapies including gum, patches and tablets. I had some short-term success, but I lacked the willpower needed to stick with these to make it long-lasting. 

When I was 55 years old I remember waking up before going to work and having coughing fits that lasted for minutes, then gasping for air and lighting up another to feel OK. I could not walk 50 metres without having to stop to catch my breath. I was smoking 25 to 30 cigarettes a day by then. Around April 2015 my job announced we were moving to a bigger site and it would be smoke-free. I thought this was the time to give up. For the next 6 months I slowly cut down to 5 cigarettes a day. I was on an induction walk around the new site and tried to cover the fact I could hardly breathe. I had to stop walking every 40 metres, pretending to look at things, but my manager noticed. He approached me later and said he had seen me gasping for air and would have to reconsider promoting me to the head supervisor. I tried to tell him it was just because I was so unfit and I would start to walk more. But the promotion was given to my colleague. From then until my 58th birthday I remained smoke-free for 8 weeks. 

By my 58th birthday (2 months smoke-free) I was already starting to breathe easier. However, I still struggled to walk more than 50 metres and my throat was always sore. I could feel pain in my throat when I swallowed food. 

One day during lunch break at work, I had to go outside to spit out phlegm. I spat blood.  

I still remember the dread and shock I felt when I saw the blood. During the following two days I was finding it increasingly painful to swallow. I made an appointment to see my local GP, who referred me to a throat specialist. A camera down my throat detected a growth on the bottom of my tongue, towards the back of my throat. I was sent to see a throat surgeon. I endured numerous scans, x-rays and blood tests. The most painful was the biopsy from my lymph gland, taken by a very large needle into my neck. The biopsy of the growth on my tongue was tested and it was confirmed that I had a mushroom-like tumour on the bottom of my tongue.

 The tumour could not be cut out. I was referred to Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for cancer treatment. The plan was to blast the tumour with 35 daily doses of radiation therapy, and 3 massive doses of the strongest chemotherapy treatment available. The treatment was horrendous and along the way I was hospitalised twice because of infection. About halfway through treatment I lost the ability to swallow. A feeding tube was placed up my nose and into my stomach to keep me alive. Most of the time I would vomit. 

Just when I thought the worst was behind me, I was still having trouble breathing. I was referred to a respiratory specialist and told that because I had smoked for so long, I had a few flat spots in my lungs. I was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma. But provided I did not smoke ever again, I was told it would not get worse.

Since treatment I have been back to hospital for 6 monthly scans, 2 biopsies and numerous check-ups. I have had a camera put through my nose and into the back of my throat. The doctor has to stick his fingers into the bottom of my throat to feel for lumps, checking for more cancer. I carry an asthma puffer with me and use it daily. 

It took three years to get over most of the side effects of the treatment. My taste buds were killed by the radiation and have only just started to come back. I still suffer from dry mouth because my saliva glands were killed by the treatment. My breathing has improved a little, but I still cannot walk far without gasping for air. I cannot do a lot of small things like mow the lawn, carry the shopping, or even make love without gasping for breath. 

Even though I’m alive today to tell it, I can’t do life’s simple things anymore. Because I could not say no, because I wanted to be cool. 

If you smoke, and you're reading this, please quit now while you can. 

Don’t ruin your chances to enjoy the golden years of your life. You definitely do not want to endure the three years of torture I had to go through. 

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