The New Normal

nosmokingLife after cancer is often called the new normal. It’s a world where survivors adjust to life-changing realities after treatment. For members of the New Voice Club, survivors of head and neck cancers, it means you can no longer breathe through your nose and smell or taste food. It means no more swimming.  It means the simple act of talking with family and friends is difficult and often frustrating because they must put an electronic hand-held device up to their throats each and every time they want to be heard.

We have all seen those hard hitting New York State Smokers’ Quitline commercials where the man coping with emphysema struggles to breathe or the guy with the artificial voice box talks about giving up his dream of umpiring professional baseball. We have also heard the complaints – some think the ads are too graphic or uncomfortable to watch. Those 30 second slices of life only begin to tell the story.

Members of the New Voice Club believe it is an honor and a duty to use their “new” voices to speak about the rest of the story. They have made it their mission to talk to young people throughout Western New York. Last year, they visited more than 150 classrooms and spoke with more than 5,000 students. These young people believe they are invincible to the dangers of smoking.

Even though these cancer survivors can’t talk for long periods of time, they are proud to share their experiences about the catastrophic impact of smoking on their lives. Most of them started smoking when they were young because they thought “everyone was doing it” or “cigarettes made us look cool.”  Now, they hope students will see how not cool it is to talk through a hole in your throat or have people look at you with pity or fright. Teachers frequently tell members of the New Voice Club that students quickly understand these cancer survivors are living proof of the damage caused by tobacco use.

The brief glimpses into reality offered by New York State Smokers’ Quitline commercials are meant to grab attention. Researchers say these commercials work to prevent young people from starting tobacco use and motivate adult users to quit. While there are 2.7 million smokers in New York State, the vast majority (about 75%) want to quit.

So if the shock value of these commercials motivates smokers to call the Quitline, that’s great. The commercials are working as the cost of smoking is too high whether the price is paid in terms of lives lost or health care costs or daily struggles to live with the new normal.

If members of the New Voice Club had the chance they would gladly go back in time and talk to a younger version of themselves. With what they know today, they would never have started smoking in the first place. Instead, they welcome opportunities to share their stories with students so that today’s youth might learn from their mistakes. And in spite of the daily challenges of their new normal, they remain grateful for every moment of life.

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