Man Who Lost His Voice to Cancer Educates Others on the Dangers of Tobacco
Don Young has carried the Olympic torch and educated countless people on the dangers of smoking. He is also a cancer and heart disease survivor. Don is November’s featured survivor for #NoMOHeartDisease, the American Heart Association’s year-long initiative created to increase awareness and reduce the prevalence of heart disease in Missouri.
When Don Young was 14 years old, his life changed forever. His parents divorced and he moved in with his grandparents. With a new home and a new school, Don was desperate for a place to fit in. When kids at his new school asked Don if he wanted a cigarette, he accepted, hoping it would help him make friends. What began as a desire to “fit in” became a two-pack a day smoking habit that lasted for the next 34 years.
At 48, Don developed a sore throat that wouldn’t go away. It worsened every time he smoked. Don’s wife, Kay, noticed and made him see a doctor. Scans soon showed that Don had throat cancer as a result of his smoking. A series of treatments and surgeries followed. Despite medical intervention, Don was told that he had just six months to live.
Determined not to be a “living statistic”, Don endured further procedures, surgeries, and treatments, including a total laryngectomy and the forming of a new esophagus. The surgeries were successful in treating Don’s cancer but left him without a voice or the ability to eat, drink or breathe normally. Today, a “normal” day begins by dilating his throat so he is able to eat and drink, breathing through a hole in his neck and using a mechanical device to communicate.
Unfortunately, more health challenges lie ahead due to Don’s tobacco use. Don became short of breath and was unable to complete tasks that had formerly been easy to do. He saw a doctor who was able to pinpoint the issues: smoking had damaged Don’s aortic valve and caused blockages in his heart. More surgery followed this time on his heart, to replace the valve and insert five stents to open up Don’s blocked arteries.
Though smoking has taken so much from him, including his physical voice, Don is determined to speak out on the dangers of tobacco. Don is a tireless advocate within his community, speaking, volunteering and advocating for a smoke-free society. To help raise awareness of the dangers of smoking and heart disease, Don is sharing his story as part of the American Heart Association’s #NoMOHeartDisease initiative. The Association is highlighting Don’s battle with both cancer and heart disease in honor of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout.
The American Heart Association has identified several policy priorities to address tobacco use. They recommend restricting tobacco sales to adults 21 and older; preventing access to and prohibiting marketing of tobacco products to children; including e-cigarettes in comprehensive smoke-free laws; e-cigarette taxation; removing flavored tobacco products from the market, and supporting robust FDA regulation over all tobacco products.
Nancy Brown, chief executive officer at the American Heart Association, said of e-cigarettes, “In the absence of robust regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, we know shockingly little about the health impact of e-cigarettes being widely marketed to youth and adults. The recent outbreak of respiratory illnesses associated with e-cigarette use has only added to the uncertainty and increased the need for immediate action.”
You can learn more about Don, as well as other Missourians affected by heart disease and stroke, at heart.org/nomoheartdisease. The American Heart Association also posts about the initiative on their Missouri Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Survivors are encouraged to share their stories by using #NoMOHeartDisease on social media. Video production services for the #NoMOHeartDisease initiative were donated by Rogue Route.