In 1992 at the age of 48, Don Young became cancer statistic. He was diagnosed with throat cancer. A series of treatments and surgeries followed. Don had a malignant node removed, half of his larynx removed, radiation treatments, and a total laryngectomy only to be told he had six months to live. He began another series of surgeries that removed the front, right side, and part of the left side of his neck. A portion of Don’s small intestine was transplanted to form his esophagus. Muscle from his chest and skin from his leg completed the procedure. The small intestine transplant was rejected and a tube was then inserted in its place. Another tube was placed in his stomach to provide an opening to insert nourishment and medication for the thirteen months he couldn’t eat.
“I was placed in rehabilitation for three months to regain my strength for the next surgery. This surgery involved pulling my stomach up to attach to the back of my throat to form a new esophagus,” recalls Don. “My desire to be a cancer survivor shows my stamina and determination to be a living statistic.”
Since the age of 14, Don developed a two pack-a-day smoking habit that continued for the next 34 years. “It rendered me a life that requires inserting a two-foot tube down my throat every morning to dilate the opening so I am able to eat and drink throughout the day. I cannot bend or lie flat to sleep because the sphincter muscle has been removed leaving a direct opening to the stomach. I cannot breathe or talk through my nose or mouth. A tracheostomy, hole in my neck, allows me to breathe and a mechanical device allows me to communicate. I will take medication for the rest of my life,” Don said. Despite these hardships, he has been cancer-free for 14 years, and is thankful for each day as a cancer survivor.
As a result of his own battle with cancer, he is committed to the fight against smoking. “When I started smoking as a teenager, this was not the picture of the life I thought I would be living someday. I have overcome many physical obstacles and have chosen to take the knowledge I have learned from my experiences to educate young people to make the right choice,” said Don.
Don’s fight against smoking has taken him into schools, colleges, churches, youth organizations, public forums, medical schools, and corporations to speak with people about his experience. His presentation includes facts and statistics that challenge young people to think about their choices. “I share with them that in my group of five high school friends, three had cancer, and I am the only survivor.”
Don’s time and energy is devoted to speaking to young people. However he is also active in the lives of cancer patients, bringing them hope for recovery, the compassion to help them endure treatment, and the encouragement to live life to the fullest. Don is thankful for the American Cancer Society, “The Society continues to guide and support me and my wife, Kay, when we’ve needed them the most.” Don volunteers with the Society, and other community and health organizations. Since his cancer diagnosis, Don feels he’s taken on new purpose. “I am able to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families. As a cancer survivor, I feel compelled to take my story to the youth of our nation.”
“You just never know when smoking is going to come back to haunt you,” said Don. Currently as a result of smoking, Don has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease, in which he has had his aortic valve replaced, had two stints placed in his heart, as well as one stint placed in each leg. Nevertheless, he continues to be a tireless advocate for tobacco cessation efforts, speaking across the country. To contact Don about his advocacy efforts, visit http://www.youngchoices.org.
* Originally published in the Great American Smokeout newsletter