• 12/29/2004
  • no attribution
  • The Tennessean (Tennessean.com)

Hugh Hankins talks into a small electronic microphone held to the hole in his throat. If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking, you might want to listen to what he has to say about what cigarettes did for him.

”In 1978, I had 28 grand mal brain seizures,” Hankins told me, his voice sounding like those anonymous hidden sources you see on the television news. To speak, he presses the button on his microphone. His mouth moves, but the only sound that comes out is from the hole.

”I was in a coma for a week. In 1984, I developed throat cancer. I had 28 radiation treatments. Back then, they shot you in both sides of your throat — just burned you up. About six months after, they did a total laryngectomy. They cut you straight across the throat. I have no voice at all. I have no smell at all.”

Hankins’ tale is hard to listen to, both because he is difficult at times to understand and because it’s full of so many painful experiences. He has had a collapsed esophagus, a brain tumor, prostate cancer and is now on total disability. Now and then, he has to have the hole in his throat enlarged when it starts closing up.

His doctors believe the majority of his health problems were caused from his long history of smoking. Still, he said, ”I’m not complaining.” He’s happy just to be alive.

See how good cigarettes are for you?

Hankins now volunteers with the American Cancer Society, speaking to throat cancer patients and school groups to urge teens and grown-ups to quit smoking. He is president of the New Voice Club, a group of fellow laryngectomy survivors that gets together routinely.

”I’ll have to use this for the rest of my life,” he said, pointing with the microphone. ”That’s all right. There’s 127 people like me in Middle Tennessee.”

Hankins, who is 71, started smoking when he was 8.

”All the boys I grew up with smoked. I went to school with boys who were 18 years old,” he said. ”I grew up in Houston County. I couldn’t afford cigarettes, but I’d go out behind the tobacco barn, pinch some and roll my own.”

He quit in 1985, after his throat cancer was diagnosed. Even then, he didn’t want to.

”I quit in the parking lot of the hospital before I started radiation,” he said. ”I smoked that last one down to the butt.”

A traveling salesman by trade, Hankins spent years on the road smoking in airplanes (it was legal back then), in hotel rooms and in cars. When he called on department stores, they all allowed smoking in their lobbies. At his peak, he would go through three packs in a day.

”I’d just sit and smoke, sit and smoke,” he said.

Hankins’ story moved me, because I’ve been there, too. When I started at The Tennessean in 1978, I was 16 years old. Everybody smoked in the newsroom. Members of my family smoked. It was easy to join in and light up. After numerous failed tries, I finally quit smoking on Christmas Day 1990. It remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Trust me, I’m not preaching. It’s hell to quit. You’ve got to want it bad. You’ve got to dig deep and find willpower beyond anything you’ve done to date. There is help.

If you need inspiration, classes or information about really quitting this time, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345. Don’t wait until someone has to cut a hole in your throat.

Make 2005 the year you kicked butt.