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Quitting smoking may not have saved me from lung disease after all

When I quit smoking toward the end of college, I didn’t make any grand pronouncements. Truthfully, it wasn’t that hard. I was the kind of smoker who did it socially (more to have something in my hand and to be “cool”) than an addict who needed a pack or more a day. I would smoke more during finals or during the summer but was never an addict who couldn’t live without a smoke. Still, I smoked. Quite a bit. And new research has shown that even though I had my last cigarette more than a decade ago, I might still be at risk for lung disease.

According to the most recent research, quitting smoking “does not eliminate the risk of progressive lung disease.” Let that sink in for a moment. That means every cigarette I smoked at Waffle House with friends in high school is still sitting in my lungs. Even though I am currently a yoga teacher and marathon runner who wouldn’t dream of touching a smoke ever again.

More: 14 celeb smokers and how they quit

As a mom, this news is deeply distressing. I look back on so many choices I made back when I was a kid and all the times I put myself in danger through experimentation, and I cringe. Of course, that is part of growing up, but it’s just a shame I didn’t have a better sense of what it all meant back then, how precious every moment would become as I moved through the years.

So what can we do?

I know for me now, even though I dedicate a significant portion of my day and life to health, the idea that all of it could be for naught is so depressing. It’s part of why I want to reach my children young. But how do you stop people from smoking?

We’ve put warnings on the cartons (they were there when I was a kid), all the research is evident (it was the same when I was young), they don’t have parents who smoke (neither did I), and smoking is largely eliminated from movies today as well as the public sphere. And yet I still worry.

More: Lung cancer symptoms even non-smokers should know

I can’t undo anything I did in the past. I can’t wish away the tans I got or the cigarettes I smoked or the drugs I tried. But I can do my best to take care of myself and share what I know with my children. In the end, it’s the experimenting and the pushing of boundaries that make us who we are. I wouldn’t be who I am without having also been the kind of person who needed to test limits and try all the things “they” told me not to.

If my lung capacity is diminished, I haven’t noticed yet. Of course I have regrets. But we can’t spend our lives steeped in them. We move forward. We hope for the best. And we see our doctors. Lung cancer can even take people who never smoked a day in their lives. It’s all a crap shoot.

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