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The Man Who Wrote His Own Obituary “Cigarettes were the death of me”

Re-printed from Reader’s Digest – July 1966

Mark Waters, long time reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, started his last story January 27. “Run it as my obituary,” he said on that day. “Maybe it will help someone.” Four days later he made the final corrections in his copy. On the next day, February 1, in Queens Hospital, Honolulu, he died of lung cancer. Here is that last story.

I am using my blog site to re-post an article published in Readers Digest (July 1966) written by my Grandfather Mark Waters. My Grandfather died from a battle with lung cancer. As a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin his final published article was a attempt to help others understand the devastating effects of smoking. His story would later become a documentary movie staring Richard Boone (Who lived in Hawaii at the time) and became part of a stop smoking campaign.

Thank you for reading. Mark Walter –

Cigarettes were the death of me. I became acquainted with my killer when I was about 14 and began stealing several a day from my father’s pack. Inhaling caused some nausea at first, but persistence conquered.

I was born in a miniature Hell’s Kitchen in Davenport, Iowa on June 2, 1909. At 16, I moved with my family, including two sisters, to Baltimore, a city that I loved and adopted as my hometown. It was still no problem getting cigarettes.

I got odd jobs after school to buy them, and tried all sorts of one off brands, such as Melachrinos, Omars, and English Ovals. I felt quite sophisticated, but I can’t recall now that I enjoyed smoking them.

In 1928, the coming of the depression cast its shadow. With money scarce, my father began counting his Camels, so a buddy and I took to picking butts off the street. We toasted the soggy tobacco in an oven, and rolled it into rice-paper cigarettes. They were horrible.

Jobs for youth were nil, so I decided to join the Navy – I considered it one less mouth to feed, plus I could send money home to help the family. Now cigarettes were no problem. If you were at sea, they were 40 cents a carton. I smoked two packs a day, inhaling most of the smoke.

When my 20-year Navy career ended, I went to the University of North Carolina. After I graduated I got a job with the San Diego Union. One night, while walking to my car, I had a slight stroke and staggered to the left. I had been smoking one cigarette after another that night, and I felt that that was what caused it.

My wife, Muriel, and I tried to quit. We lasted eight days.

It wasn’t that I got any real pleasure out of smoking. Except for the first cigarette in the morning with my coffee, I never enjoyed it. My mouth always tasted like a birdcage. Smoking took away my appetite. It brought on emphysema that made it hard to breath. My chest colds were very dramatic.

In 1956, smoking more than ever, I came to Honolulu to work for the Star-Bulletin.

In June 1965 my stomach began hurting, and I would get up every hour or half hour during the night to drink milk and smoke a cigarette.

In September 1965 I came down with a horrible cough. I was hoarse, and there was a nasty soreness in my left lung.

I went to my doctor. He listened to my chest and ordered an X ray. “You have a lung tumor,” he said. Four days later, the lung surgeon took out a left lobe.

A month later, I was back at work. I hadn’t smoked since the day before my operation. It wasn’t hard to quit – for one simple reason… Motivation.

I made some progress, gained ten pounds and really felt good. Then, on January 3, I thought I had caught a cold. I went to my surgeon, who tapped a quart of burgundy fluid from my left chest cavity. I went back several times, and my surgeon said, “The time is drawing closer.”

Later, my wife told me he had told her after the operation that I had less than a year to live. But she wouldn’t believe it, and she didn’t tell me. I find no fault with that.

There are four cell types of lung cancer. The type seems to have a lot to do with its rate of growth. My doctor told me that out of every 20 lung-cancer cases only one survives. The other 19 die.

That’s the survival rate for lung cancer, taking into consideration all available forms of treatment. There is no 50-50 chance – the figure for other cancers – for this type of cancer.

My doctor has understandable passion about getting people to quit cigarettes. He says that there’s no question of the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The statistics are overwhelming. It is estimated that one in every eight males who have been smoking heavily (20 cigarettes or more a day) for 20 years gets lung cancer.

The bad effect of cigarettes doesn’t end with lung cancer. Smoking doubles the chances of death from coronary-artery disease, and the chances of dying from emphysema are 12 times greater. Then there’s cancer of the mouth, larynx, esophagus and all the rest, too.

I think doctors must feel helpless at times. They warn people like me, but their warnings go unheeded. This message also competes with all the advertising that promotes cigarettes. As my doctor says, “Millions of dollars are spent in all forms of advertising to give the public the impression that cigarettes can make up for our shortcomings.”

In Italy and Great Britain, they have passed a ban against all cigarette advertisements on TV. I think that’s a step in the right direction because, as the doctor says, the effort should be to stop kids from getting started.

Whether this story will stop anyone from smoking, I don’t know. I doubt it. Not a soul I’ve preached to has quit smoking – not a single, solitary soul.

You always think: “It will happen to the other guy; never to me.” But when you get your lung cancer – God help you. All you need to see is that shadow on your chest X ray. It’s a real shock. You can’t do a thing.

At this point, I’m comfortable. The nurses give me something whenever there’s pain. I’m very short of breath. I can’t take five steps without having to sit. The cancer has gone into my liver and I don’t know where else.

I don’t have a ghost of a chance… It’s too late for me… It may not be for you.

– Mark Waters

2 responses to “The Man Who Wrote His Own Obituary “Cigarettes were the death of me””

  1. James Page Avatar
    James Page

    I first read this as a young kid of 12. In Readers Digest. Just two years later I was smoking. My father smoked roll your own cigarettes. Country Gentleman and Prince Albert. After I joined the army I still smoked. In our C rations the army conveniently gave us a 5 cigarette small pack of cigarettes. Maybe 10 years passed and I quit for 5 years. Until I was in a field exercise with guys who smoked. The smell was great! I bummed a cigarette the first and second day. The third day I had my own cigarettes. I retired from the army in 92. It wasn’t until 2001 that I finally gave them up. I seem to be in good shape. I had been running marathons. My lungs and heart are great. I think I just lucked out. Now kids are smoking these vapor things. Hopefully they will learn.

  2. Adriana Burnett Avatar
    Adriana Burnett

    Thanks for a great read

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