Walt showed us in Mary Poppins that Mr. Banks could be saved from his work addiction, as demonstrated in Tom Hanks wonderful portrayal in Saving Mr. Banks. However, he could not save Mr. Goff (P. L. Travers’ father) from his alcohol addiction, leading to his fatal infection (influenza, not TB). And Walt, unfortunately, could not save himself.
Not portrayed in the film was the most important lesson Walt taught us. Walt Disney’s fatal illness which shortened his life and deprived us all of his extraordinary imagination and creations was lung cancer directly caused by his life-long chain smoking. When he died at the young age of 65 from lung cancer only 1 month after it was diagnosed, he had left us with the record 59 Oscar nominations and 22 Academy Awards, a record that still has not been broken.
But could Walt have been saved? Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in America. 392,000 Americans die every year from smoking, including deaths from smoking-induced heart and lung disease and also 160,000 deaths from smoking-related cancers. America’s 43 million smokers have a shortened life, 13.2 years less for men and 14.5 years less for women. Smoking causes not only lung cancer, but also throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, colon, cervix, kidney, bladder and ovary cancer and also leukemia.
And of course, Walt Disney is only one of the well-known celebrities to have died from smoking addiction and then cancer. Lung cancer also claimed the lives of John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Edward R. Murrow, Steve McQueen, Arthur Godfrey, Pee-Wee Reese, Betty Grable, and Lon Chaney. Throat cancer was fatal for Babe Ruth, Judy Holliday, Sigmund Freud, Edward VIII the Duke of Windsor, and George Harrison who had both lung cancer and throat cancer! Humphrey Bogart succumbed to esophageal cancer from his smoking. And pancreatic cancer from smoking took the lives of Count Basie, Jack Benny, Patrick Swayzee and my patient Michael Landon. Frank Sinatra had bladder cancer.
So we should learn from Walt, and be reminded by all these celebrities, smokers should stop smoking. Smoking cessation is a dream of 69 percent of the 43 million smokers in America. In 2010, 52 percent of them tried stopping smoking for at least 1 day, but most unsuccessfully, tragically. Nicotine, after all, is a highly addictive psychoactive chemical whose habit is tough to break.
But the good news is that comprehensive smoking cessation help and guidance is becoming more successful, is more available, and now is covered by many health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). So here are my tips to begin and succeed in stopping smoking:
• If you smoke, discuss cessation with your primary doctor. Expect your physician to give you advice, and a program to help you stop smoking (physicians have guidelines for smoking cessation recommendations). Get a second opinion if he or she does not take the time to do it. See my book Surviving American Medicine for detailed tips about getting second opinions. With your doctor, set a definite date to stop smoking or begin the cessation program
• Get counseling help. This is available as individual counseling (sometimes even with hypnosis), group sessions, by telephone (1-800 QUITNOW), and online. To help you, trusted internet sources include the CDC Smoking Tobacco Use Website, Be Tobacco-Free, Smoke-Free, CDC How To Quit, and a general navigating guide from the CDC.
• Use a nicotine replacement method: this includes gum, patch, nasal spray, inhaler and even e-cigarettes (although e-cigarette consumers are not told what additives are in the nicotine that is vaporized, so there may be some adverse side effects with long term use).
• With your physician, consider using prescription aids to stop smoking such as Zyban or Chantix, but be aware of and watch for the rare side effects.
• Enlist the help of your family and friends. Avoid situations that promote smoking, and choose friends who do not smoke.
• Make a written resolution about smoking cessation, share it with others who will be helping you to avoid smoking (usually family), and keep your pledges.
• If you smoke now or have smoked in the past, begin a program to screen for and diagnose conditions that are smoking-induced. Most of these tests are now covered by insurance. Lung function tests and cardiac evaluations detect emphysema and heart disease. Low dose CT lung scans find small and more curable lung cancers. Small throat cancers are detected by oral and ENT exams. CT scans, urinalyses, and endoscopies of stomach and colon find early cancers caused by smoking. If your doctor is not ordering these tests, get a second opinion from a specialist.
So with what we know today, we could have saved Mr. Disney, and many of the other celebrities. More importantly, you can save your own life by recognizing the problem of smoking addiction and committing yourself to improvement. Build your team to help you, including family, friends and physicians. Too late now to save Mr. Disney, but just in time to save yourself.