Don Young, 66, is a man on a mission to direct teens and young adults to refrain from smoking. His methods are scary, but they work.
“I’m compelled to tell my story and make young people afraid to smoke,” said Young, who lives in St. Charles.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is the single leading preventable cause of death in the nation, and each day, about 4,000 American youth aged 12-17 smoke their first cigarette.
Determined to change those statistics, Young presents thought-provoking programs at area schools, colleges, churches, youth organizations, public forums, medical schools and corporations, sharing his cancer experience with more than 40,000 people per year.
Young started smoking at age 14 and in 1992, at the age of 48, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, caused by 34 years of a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.
A series of operations and treatments saved Young’s life but left him unable to speak. He is unable to breathe or talk normally through his nose or mouth; a hole in his throat that opens directly to his lungs (a tracheotomy) allows him to breathe. To speak, he must use an electronic voice box, which produces a robot-like speech pattern. To eat and drink, Young inserts a two-foot tube down his throat every morning to dilate the opening.
It is said a picture is worth a 1,000 words, and Young’s photo presentations say it all, vividly illustrating his story in graphic detail, as Young documented the course of his illness by photographing his surgeries and treatments.
His programs are intended to shock, and they do.
Kathleen Graham, who teaches at St. Charles High School, connected with Young through her classes on peer facilitating in which students are trained to help their classmates solve teen problems.
“It’s hard not to gush when talking about Don Young,” Graham said. “He is a wonderful human being who genuinely cares about people, both young and old. Don hopes his story will warn others not to make his mistakes. He has been through so much, and it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. Students seem to truly respect his honesty, and he always commands their respect when he addresses them.”
Over the years, Graham said, she has seen many students attribute their decision to remain tobacco-free due to Young’s presentations.
Cancer-free since 1993, Young has garnered numerous honors and awards, including the 1997 St. Louis American Cancer Society “Volunteer of the Year.” He volunteers for many organizations, including the American Lung Association, the Tobacco-Free Missouri – St. Louis Coalition, the National Council of Alcohol & Drug Abuse and others that fight tobacco and drug use.
Amazingly, Young has participated in the Senior Olympics in track and field, javelin, jumping, shot put, and more. He carried the Senior Olympic Torch in St. Louis in 1996, 2000 and 2004. In 2000, he was named Coping magazine’s “Cancer Survivor of the Year.”
He continues to work with young people in sports, at church, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and performing as a Shriners clown.
Through it all, Young aims to make a difference.
“I know not everyone will stop smoking, but some will, and that’s worth it,” he said.
By Sheila Frayne Rhoades