By Tina Patch, guest blogger
My dad was a man’s man. He was a tough Army soldier and ran miles in combat boots, parachuted from cargo planes and fought in the Korean War. He worked hard. He played hard. And, like most of his buddies, he smoked – heavily – for more than 35 years.
35 Years Ago: the Doctor’s Visit
When I was 12, Dad came home with awful news. During his annual checkup, his doctor found pre-cancerous spots on his throat. “I have to quit smoking,” he said, “or I’ll get cancer and could die.”
My mom, little brother and I stood frozen in shock. Smoking was as much a part of Dad’s life as getting up every morning. None of us fully realized the consequences.
So that day, Dad stopped smoking – cold turkey. For a month, we watched him withdraw. I recall the pen shaking as he signed papers at my school. He suffered cold sweats and miserable cravings. And, when he finally couldn’t take it anymore, Dad started smoking again.
I certainly wasn’t ready to lose my dad. So, I used the money I’d earned from my first babysitting job (about 10 dollars) to buy a four-week stop smoking kit. In the box were four filter tips that reduced his nicotine intake gradually each week. By the end of the program, Dad had quit cigarettes and was officially an EX-smoker!
Seven Years Ago: the Doctor’s Visit
Thankfully, Dad didn’t get throat cancer. And his lungs healed. But, in his late 70s, he once again received shocking news from his doctor: he had stage 3 bladder cancer.
Sure, we know smoking’s bad for a lot of reasons – like hypertension, heart disease and lung cancer. But, we didn’t know smoking is the number-one risk factor for bladder cancer.
Those many years of smoking cigarettes had come back to haunt my dad – with a vengeance.
(At left: Joe Pisz, with grandson Stefan and wife Greta)
In fact, about half of all bladder cancer patients are – or were – smokers. As a former smoker, Dad had doubled his odds. And, current smokers are four times more likely to develop the disease as non-smokers.
How Does Smoking Cause Bladder Cancer?
Tobacco smoke – from cigarettes, cigars and pipes – contains high levels of at least 70 cancer-causing agents. Smokers inhale these toxic chemicals and they pass directly from their lungs into the bloodstream.
Blood filters through the kidneys, and the carcinogens from smoking end up concentrated in urine. While urine sits in the bladder, these toxins damage cells in the bladder lining – giving cancer the chance to develop.
Who’s at Greatest Risk?
Smokers who are most likely to get bladder cancer start smoking young, smoke heavily or have smoked for many years. But, there are other factors that can influence your risk.
- Age. It can take 25 years or more before bladder to develop. It’s rarely diagnosed in a person younger than 40. In fact, 90 percent of those afflicted are older than 55. A smoker’s cancer risk increases with age – especially if he’s a long-time smoker.
- Bladder infections. If you have a history of chronic bladder infections or inflammation, you’re more susceptible to developing squamous cell bladder cancer if you’re a smoker – by as much as 10 percent.
- Ethnicity. Caucasians have the highest risk – double that of African Americans. Those of Native American, Asian and Hispanic descent have slightly lower risks than whites.
- Gender. Men are four times more likely to get bladder cancer than women, either because more men smoke, or they smoke more than women. Also, a greater number of men work industrial-type jobs that present an added risk.
- Genetics or family history. Bladder cancer generally doesn’t run in families, but it can seem that way. Family members are often exposed to the same hazards (smoke and chemicals) that put them at a similar increased risk.
- Occupation. Smokers exposed to industrial chemicals are 30 percent more likely to develop bladder cancer than from smoking alone. At highest risk are those who work with textiles, paint, plastic, rubber and leather. Also, people who handle dyes are susceptible, like painters, machinists, printers, barbers and hairdressers. So are truck, bus and taxi drivers, who’re regularly exposed to noxious diesel fumes. Years on the job add to the risk.
- Passive smoke. Second-hand smoke increases bladder cancer risk. Tobacco smoke emits free radicals (highly reactive chemicals) that wreak havoc on healthy cells when breathed in. So, keep that in mind if you find yourself – and especially your children – in proximity of someone who’s puffing away.
How to Reduce Your Risk
- Stop smoking. Better yet, never start. But if you’re a smoker, stop for yourself and everyone around you. It’s a high-risk habit worth changing.
- Urinate often. People who drink lots of water have lower rates of bladder cancer. Each time you use the toilet, you’re ridding your bladder of pollutants – so go regularly, and go often. And make sure you’re eliminating overnight, too. You don’t want harmful carcinogens lingering in your bladder for hours on end.
- Antioxidants. Studies show that non-smokers can lower their risk of developing bladder cancer by consuming foods or supplements rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals. Fresh fruits and vegetables are your best options. It’s uncertain, however, whether antioxidant supplements can benefit – or harm – patients who already have bladder cancer. So, check with your cancer care team before adding any supplements to your regimen.
My dad underwent surgery, chemotherapy and months of radiation treatment for his bladder cancer. And today, he’s seven years cancer-free.
Of course, Dad’s risk for recurrence is higher than most. But he works hard to stay healthy. We’ve all learned so much. And, we’ve experienced firsthand how smoking can change your life – and the lives of those you love.
Need Help Quitting?
To learn more about how to quit smoking, talk to your primary care provider, your cancer care team or visit the American Lung Association's website.
For local resources and support to help you or someone you know:
Greater Burbank area
Greater Missoula area
About the author: Tina Patch is a freelance writer and blogger. She has more than 20 years’ experience in writing and editing. As a former naval officer, she’s traveled the world – living and working in the US, Iceland, Italy, Germany and Norway. Tina has a degree in Norwegian language and literature from the University of Washington. Originally from Washington, she now lives in Colorado with her husband and son. She enjoys hiking and downhill skiing, and also dabbles in wine making, cheese making and creating natural skincare products.