I lovingly planted a tuberose near my living room window and I could not wait to see it bloom. I put up with the smell of the compost in the soil, all along, thinking of the wonderful fragrance these flowers would give out. When they finally did bloom, my joy knew no bounds because the fragrance was enchanting. When tired from the day’s work, I could just sit there and relax so easily in the company of these lovely flowers. As the fragrance floated in, my thoughts floated to Nalini, my friend who loved gardening and grew beautiful flowers as well. The only difference was that she could no longer smell them.
As others enjoyed the fragrance of the flowers, she only had her memories to fall back on, struggling to recall how a particular flower smelled when she could actually smell them. Recalling an exact odour is not easy; it is not like a memory of a fixed vision. This made her ache even further for a chance to smell them once again. But her ability to smell flowers was snatched away from her by cigarettes. She never smoked a cigarette in her life, but she was the victim of passive (or second hand) smoking which gave her throat cancer and because of which her vocal cord had to be removed. Now she cannot smell anything. Cancer didn’t make her a bitter person at all. With her beautiful smile, she remains the same sweet person she was, always reaching out to others with a helping hand.
As I write this, I realise that I am someone who doesn’t like to clean up someone’s mess. But when I look at Nalini suffering for what someone else did, I am filled with a sadness that cannot be put in words. Nalini Satyanarayanan is in her 70s and an amazing lady. I am fortunate to have met her.
The Dilemma of Passive Smokers
We can choose what we eat or drink but unfortunately, we cannot choose where we breathe or don’t breathe. Whether the air around is laden with smoke or smell, we have to inhale it to live.
Often people who are addicted to smoking ignore its impact on their loved ones. They fill their lungs and homes with smoke unaware of neither the consequences nor the cancer that comes with it. Apart from causing lung or throat cancer, smoking can lead to emphysema and that it is bad for the heart. Smoke makes blood stickier, raises "bad" LDL cholesterol, and damages the lining of blood vessels. Eventually, these changes can make a person more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. The smoker makes the choice to smoke and the people living with them are usually the unwitting participants to that lifestyle.
Nalini could not avoid the person who was smoking because she promised to share her life with him. She did not expect it to have such serious effect on her in her later years.
Losing Her Life Partner
Nalini’s husband smoked 18 cigarettes a day, especially when he was tensed about work. Nalini, a devoted wife slowly started to learn about passive smoking. Her husband suffered stroke at the age of 45. All her efforts to make him quit smoking failed and he continued his habit. So did Nalini, unwittingly, with her second hand smoking by giving him company. His heart threatened to give up on him again after 5 years when he suffered a major stroke. With life almost being snatched from him this time, her husband finally stopped smoking but the damage was already done. Nine years later he passed away in his sleep.
Losing a life partner was tough on Nalini, but she coped with her grief and moved on in life.
At Loss Again
Slowly as days passed, Nalini settled down with her new life without her husband. Few years later she realized that her voice was becoming feeble and she was having trouble talking. This was in 2009. She paid a visit to the doctor, who prescribed her some medicines that did not help her. A year later, she became so breathless that she was rushed to the hospital in emergency. When the diagnosis finally came, her family tried to hide cancer from her but then eventually she got to know. Though a strong woman, this was enough to break her down.
She had never smoked a cigarette in her life and yet, here she was, on the threshold, inviting cancer in her life. Why was this happening to her? Was sitting with her husband when he smoked a sin enough to give her cancer? Did she really have to go through this now? Especially just after learning to cope with her loss!
Slowly she braced herself for the fight ahead. Trying to smile through her tears, she went for the treatment of throat cancer. Due to the severity of the cancer, her vocal cord and thyroid gland had to be removed.
Passive Smoking Active Cancer
Some cancers are more active than others, in a way that the effects are seen in everyday life even when the treatment is over. Cancer had advanced by the time it was detected in Nalini’s case, hence after the removal of the vocal cord and thyroid gland she was left with a hole in her neck. Her mangalsutra had been replaced with this hole now. A PEG tube was attached to her stomach for feeding purpose. That was tough to deal with, but she thrived and survived.
I have seen the active role cancer plays in her life. Air conditioning can send her into fits of coughing, as can having oily food or cold water. Not deterred by this, Nalini bravely marches on.
She speaks through voice prosthesis and plays flute through the Stoma (the hole in her neck).
She takes part in awareness programs for throat and other types of cancer and also works towards tobacco ban. Cancer could only take her ability to speak, but it drastically failed to stop her from spreading her message. She is a warrior fighting to choke the smoke which is killing and disfiguring many people, including the youth. Her feeble voice falls like a thunder on the ears.
The New Hope
She had to change her lifestyle to lead a new normal life. She says with a smile, “When I was dejected, God smiled from above and said that it was only a bend and not the end. So I bounced back with determination and confidence”. Now she is a volunteer in the anti-tobacco cell, institute of public health, and child rights commission. She speaks in schools and colleges on the bad effects of smoking and passive smoking. She is a proud member of the pink hope support group. Her dream is to create a tobacco-free state which is not easy but may happen one day. “Life is a trip. The only problem is that it doesn’t come with a map. We have to search our own routes to reach our destination” says this warrior.