The Cancer Diaries: The Smoker's Tumour

Two years ago, when Jennette began her cancer journey, we made a pact. I would help her through it, and she would let me write about it, warts and all.

Today's post is not for the squeamish, but if I'm to tell her story fully, it has to be accurate and truthful. And that means talking about what the doctor's call her "smoker's tumour". Nobody is forcing you to read this blog, so feel free to click the little "x" up on the right hand side of your screen. 

Otherwise, welcome to my room.

Here we go.

Look at this beautiful face. It's the face of the person I looked after for the past two years. Tomorrow, I am going to the funeral home and I won't be able to see that face. The funeral director urged me to allow their restoration professionals to fix her up before I come in to identify Jennette's remains.

I said I didn't think that was necessary. I had been with her through palliative care, and I thought I'd seen everything: the face swollen four times its size on a 95 pound weakling, the frail body deprived of nourishment and water. And who could forget that smell?

Photo by Donna Bartlett

No, the funeral director insisted. The tumour had blasted through her neck and the right side of her face, and there was a gaping hole where she used to put on her blush. Ok, I said. I'm in.

I'd actually seen the ravages of her tumour months ago. It had eaten through her neck and I could see flesh and yellow fat cells. It was pretty gruesome, but tomorrow, I'm expecting much worse.

It got me thinking about smoking. I've never been a smoker, but I had lived my life around them. As a kid, I lived in a house with four heavy smokers, and nearly every relative smoked. I hated it, thought it was a dirty habit, and I was disgusted by how smoke made my hair smell walking out the door to school. After all the relatives died, my mom relocated us to a small apartment in St. Catharines where she smoked and smoked and smoked.

Smoking killed her, of course, and nearly wiped out the entire clan. It has also killed many of my friends including Jennette's husband Roger who actually burned a hole through his lung. Still, he continued to smoke until his dying day.

Jennette told me that she realized she had brought the cancer into her own body. She stopped smoking after her first surgery but the damaged from her own smoking and Roger's second hand smoking had done the trick. She was done, like a breaded and deep fried carnival pickle.

She beat cancer the first time, at least she thought she did. Here she is, the Cheshire Cat, after an eight hour surgery to remove most of the bottom of her mouth.

It didn't take long to come roaring back, like a tornado or a freight train. 

Over the last few months, I've watched that tiny lozenge-size tumour grow into something out of a Ridley Scott horror film. It nestled in her cheek for a while, then last week went in for the kill. 

Her oral cancer was horrendous, disfiguring, and aggressive. I have never in my life seen anything that horrific -- and I spent years editing a pathology journal!

I am not an anti-smoking zealot. A couple of my kids smoke, and I've chided them for it. My philosophy is that people choose their own path.

But every once in a while, I feel the need to speak up, not on behalf of smokers but for the other victims: spouses, moms, dads, kids, and close friends.

Smoker's don't really get it, do they?

Not until they actually get it.

Spend a Thursday afternoon at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre. They call it Oral Cancer Thursday. It's pretty disturbing seeing people walking around without their lower jaws or teeth.

Wouldn't it be great if the smokers in our lives thought once or twice about the collateral damage?

I'm talking about the damage done to people like me who have to go and identify their bodies.

Only to see this.

P.S., I know this post will attract trolls. I will not respond, and your comments will be deleted. 


  1. powerful post but a needed post if it stops someone from smoking.


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