In 1977, after smoking for nearly 40 years, Howard I. Singer was diagnosed with cancer. During the course of a year, he had two major surgeries to remove his tongue and left jaw, cobalt radiation and iridium implants twice. Today, the 80-year-old Singer (retired what?) has no sense of smell, virtually no sense of taste. He has only one-half of a lower jaw and no teeth. Singer is grateful to have survived and is a fierce anti-smoking advocate. He regularly writes letters to magazines and newspapers that advertise cigarettes, contributes to the American Cancer Society and talks to people of all ages, hoping his message is not only heard, but seen. MAURA E. MONTELLANO spoke with him.
I started smoking when I was 17 or 18. Back in those days, no one really knew the effects of smoking. I smoked a couple packs a day and sometimes I smoked a pipe. My father smoked, Hollywood glamorized it, we smoked pack after pack in the Army. During WWII, a carton of cigarettes cost only 50 cents, a cigar was a nickel and a can of tobacco was a dime. No one thought about it; we just did it.
Through the years, I tried stopping many times, but never succeeded. It was too difficult. I finally stopped smoking the day I found out I had cancer. For me, cancer cured my smoking habit.
I am responsible, at last count, for helping more than 100 people quit smoking. The first and most effective thing I do is show them what’s left of the inside of my mouth. That usually shocks them. Then I let them have a good, long look at my face. I’m not embarrassed. It’s all there, it’s not a lie.
I ask if they want to live a short, miserable life or a long, healthy life. I tell them they are playing Russian roulette with their life and they’re going to lose. I ask them to imagine what it’s like to not have a tongue. What it would be like to have to put your food in a blender because you can barely chew. That’s what I do everyday. I have an upper denture that helps me some but it still takes me a long time to eat a meal. I can’t smell anything or taste much. I used to be a wine collector and loved to drink wine. I stopped drinking it because it was like setting my mouth on fire, as if I’d poured pure rubbing alcohol in it.
I have a speech problem as well. Try talking without a tongue and teeth. Try having to wipe up your mouth all the time because you don’t have a tongue like everyone else to lick up food or saliva.
Sometimes I stop strangers on the streets, young and old, who I see smoking. I talk to them and show them. I’ve been told to mind my own business but more often than not, they just stare and listen. Other times, people come right out and ask about my face.
I would like to volunteer at schools to talk to kids. It would be much better than some ad campaign telling them not to smoke. Seeing is believing. They need to know everything about it. They need to know the probability of developing any of a number of smoking-related complications. It increases the chances of oral cancer, including cancer of the lips, gums and tongue, which is the kind I had.
What’s needed is an intensive campaign to convince people. It should start with a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes as far as I’m concerned. This way, most kids and people wouldn’t be able to afford it. The same goes for snuff (chewing tobacco), pipe tobacco and cigars. It would make people think about what their spending.
If I subscribe to a magazine that advertises cigarettes, I cancel it. It takes a lot of guts to run a story in a newspaper or magazine about smoking and how detrimental it is and a few pages later, run a cigarette ad. I’ve been writing to magazines and newspapers for years now letting them know how I feel. I contribute as much as I can to the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Assn. to fight this.
People need to know that smoking kills over 400,000 people a year. It’s simple: If you want to be a part of that statistic, keep smoking. If you want to live, stop smoking. Cancer cures smoking, but it doesn’t have to be that way.