A cloud of smoke permeated the room. Deborah Hatch was smoking a cigarette and drinking bourbon when she told her husband she had breast cancer.
That night the couple didnt care about carcinogens. She really enjoyed smoking, and he really enjoyed drinking. After all, alcohol and nicotine stimulate the release of neurotransmitters related to pleasurable feelings.
It took her a few months on the nicotine patch to quit smoking. Determined to stop drinking, the couple threw away a half-dozen unopened bottles of chardonnay and two bottles of scotch.
A little bit of panic set in because I thought, How am I going to deal with this now? T. Michael Smith says. I knew I had to find new ways to cope.
Smith says it was painful to watch his green-eyed girl go through a bilateral mastectomy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. Three years later, she began to struggle with asthma. Then the cancer returned, and spread like wildfire. She died at 44.
This was 16 years ago. Smith, 69, has since remarried (his wife is crime novelist Edna Buchanan) and retired as an investment banker. He wrote a book about investing, and now has published another, more personal one.
Real Battles, Real Dragons (CreateSpace, $11.95) started as a therapeutic indulgence that turned into an account of his struggles with two complex diseases, breast cancer and alcoholism. The book is meant to help husbands in similar situations, he says.
The relationship between the two diseases doesnt seem to get a lot of attention. Sometimes alcohol abuse comes before a cancer diagnosis. A study published in the International Journal of Cancer reported that 60 percent of alcohol-attributable cancers occur in the breast.
And sometimes alcohol abuse comes after surviving breast-cancer treatment. This is despite studies linking moderate drinking to a 30 percent higher risk of recurrence, with the risk increasing as alcohol consumption does.
Why would anyone drink excessively after cancer treatment? Simply put, humans are wired to seek pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones.
A breast cancer survivor who completed treatment in 2002 and admitted she is an alcoholic this year says it was because it made her feel good.
Cancer is like an earthquake that damages your finances, your body, your relationships, she says. And then you think, I have had a hard time, I deserve a bottle of wine. And you drink in secret because you know its wrong.
Another survivor who is struggling with substance abuse (and also preferred to be quoted anonymously) says she thinks her mother is an alcoholic.
All she wants to do is go shopping and drink martinis, she says. I cant have a serious conversation with her.
As with breast cancer, there is a genetic factor to alcoholism. Treatment professionals refer to it as a family disease.
Smith understands that not every one is prepared to cope with breast cancer in a healthy manner.
Here is the person that you love dearly and they have breast cancer and there is nothing that you can do about it, and you are totally at the mercy of the healthcare system, he says. Emotionally it is very difficult. And there are very few people out there who look at the caretaker and ask if they need help.
Smith says that although he sometimes drank a little too much, but not often, the painful experience of his wifes cancer triggered him to drink heavily for about nine years.
He was far from alone. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 4 in 10 people who consume alcohol are heavy drinkers or at risk of becoming one, and that nearly 19 million Americans have a problem with alcohol.
And like breast cancer, alcoholism can kill. But with seven years of sobriety under his belt, Smith offers a gleam of hope.
I drowned in alcohol until it just completely stopped working for me all together, he says. I knew it was dragging me down. And I knew that I needed help It took a while, but I got the help I needed, and I am now free.