08/31/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2014

Yes, I Was a Smoker

My mother was a gentle soul. In her best disciplinary voice, a whisper at most, used one time during my teenage years, she said, "Bill, I wish you would not smoke -- it's bad for you."  

Mom was determined to get me to quit smoking and even took me to a smoking cessation class at the local hospital. She was smoker as well. Her cigarette of choice was Kent, the Asbestos-filtered cigarette once promoted and demonstrated at a Convention of the American Medical Association.

Despite Mom's best intentions, our attendance at the class was short-lived. Our first and only class involved an explicitly chilling slide show of black lungs and people with tracheotomies smoking. Needless to say, we left early. We got in the car, lit up, and took the long way home. 

Mom was a self-conscious smoker. I recall her with a cigarette and ashtray in one hand and an industrial-size can of aerosol Lysol in the other, fumigating her trail of smoke. Of course, I don't even need to explain the irony there -- but my mom, like me, really struggled with the addiction to smoking. 

Smoking followed me into adulthood. Once, in my twenties, I told the owner of a local gym that if he would put ashtrays on the stationary bikes, I would ride more. Smoking ran my life, dictating everything -- from what I did to where I went. I wouldn't get in the car, I wouldn't pick up the phone: nothing could be accomplished if there was not a cigarette to be found. Smoking permeated my whole life and took precedence over everything. At the peak of my habit, I burned through three packs a day and even got up in the middle of the night to smoke.

Even when Mom was in the throes of lung cancer, I would duck out of her hospital room to smoke while she fought to live. I was blind to the realities of my addiction. 

After my mom died, I remember being at Mass with my family and later lighting up in the parking lot of the church, only to have my sister admonish me, "how can you smoke after all this?" 

My mother understood how smoking controlled her life, and she did not want that for me. This is how addiction works -- you are oblivious to reality and stealthy at dodging all those who confront you. 

When my son was born, he soon fell prey to a host of dangerous respiratory illnesses. Many times, we would be up all night or would sleep in hospitals as that little guy worked to breathe.  Then one day, his doctor asked if I smoked, and I said, "Yes, but only outside -- never around the kids." He told me it did not matter: I needed to shower before I picked up my son and needed to not wear clothes that I had smoked in. That was the last straw. I went home and threw away every ashtray, called my doctor, asked for a prescription for something that would keep me from getting anxious, and got the patch. From there, I proceeded to take up residence in my bed for the next few days, as I figured I needed to stay in the place where I was least likely to smoke cigarettes. 

Now, almost 19 years later, I am still a nonsmoker. Quitting did not happen overnight or in a flash, and I am grateful to my mother, who started the conversation in my childhood.

Like so many people, it's not always easy for me to make healthy choices. One morning I will be drinking a green smoothie, and later that same day, I will be sitting at my computer eating strawberry Twizzlers as if I were stuffing a wood chipper.  Healthy choices for me -- well, they don't come easily. It's work. 

My evolution from being a person who thought ashtrays on stationary exercise bicycles was a good idea into someone who, twenty years later, founded a cancer prevention organization, did not happen in the blink of an eye. Several people in my life who I loved, cherished, and adored have died from cancer.  

I founded Less Cancer to reach as many people as possible with the best information to engage individuals and communities to make healthy changes -- just as my mother wanted for me. 

The work for less incidences of cancer comes with the understanding that people can -- and do -- change. 

Your past is not who you are and does not dictate your future when it comes to health. We can all up our game to reduce our risks for cancer.