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Cancer Survivor Warns Children About Smoking

CancerWise - November 2007


By Renee Twombly

As Jerry Berkowitz will tell you, he is a man on a mission. He speaks to thousands of school kids, telling them not to become a smoker like he did when he was young. If they do, he says, they might one day end up like him, living with an artificial trachea.

He is happiest when his talks deter children from tobacco. As one student recently told him in a letter: “I am so glad you got throat cancer and came to my school. I have given up smoking so now I know I will never walk around with a hole in my neck.”

Doctor’s warning leads to quitting

Berkowitz smoked for 37 years. He started at age 13, soon after his school principal yanked him off the playground, his fists still swinging from a fight. He received a paddling, which he says he deserved. “I was a tough kid, a gang leader from the South Bronx.”

After the punishment, the principal left Berkowitz alone in his office for an hour to go to lunch. He sat in his chair, pretending to be “the big man,” then found unfiltered Camel cigarettes. Berkowitz lit one up then stole cartons of cigarettes from the principal, who was collecting them for his son, a World War II soldier.

When, at 16, Berkowitz moved with his family to Fort Worth, Texas, his behavior dramatically improved, but he went on smoking.

That is, until he was 50 years old, and his doctor told him his lungs were getting black and starting to crack. Berkowitz, who had become a real estate entrepreneur, stopped smoking instantly and took up swimming to improve his lungs.

Throat cancer appears decades after quitting

In 2000, at age 70, he became hoarse due to acid reflux, his doctor said. Berkowitz didn’t believe it and went to MD Anderson. “They found a stage IV tumor under my voice box and said they had to operate right then. My breathing passage was 80% blocked.”

Berkowitz can’t say whether his cancer was caused by decades of smoking or 20 years of exposure to secondhand smoke during his childhood. It hardly mattered. He would now enter a new phase of his life, and the last words Berkowitz said before he lost his larynx, vocal chords, voice box, trachea and part of his thyroid were to his wife. “I love you, Ruth.”

Walking anti-smoking message

Berkowitz’s recovery was not easy. Surgery was followed by radiation, which permanently destroyed his sense of taste and smell and led to the loss of sensation in his fingers. His daughter, Holly Clegg, a successful cookbook author, designed healthy recipes for him to eat, which led to her publishing her fifth book, "Eating Well Through Cancer." It has sold more than 250,000 copies through word of mouth.

He learned to speak using an artificial larynx, a tubular device that is pressed against the neck to amplify muscle vibrations. He also joined the Fort Worth branch of the Lost Chord Club, a national support group for laryngectomees.

Berkowitz became executive director and financed the group, but he never expected to speak publicly until a Fort Worth American Cancer Society representative said she needed a speaker that day to talk to 450 students at a local middle school.

Public speaking mission is born

“It was a Friday afternoon, and I was told the kids would be chatty and fidgety, wanting to go home. But when I started speaking they were mesmerized, and for 30 minutes they never moved,” Berkowitz says. “It was a great thing for me because I saw they really needed to be told the truth about smoking and secondhand smoke and that only a person like me could get the message through.”

He recalls that on his way out, a boy ran ahead, opened the door for him and his wife, handed Berkowitz a half pack of cigarettes and said, “You saved my life, mister. I will never smoke again.”

In the car, the couple had tears in their eyes. “I knew what I had to do,” Berkowitz says. He has taken what he calls “My One-Man Anti-Smoking Campaign” to more than 22,000 youngsters at 80 schools and civic organizations. He says this new mission is “the most rewarding thing in my life.”

Berkowitz keeps a running list of things that students say to him. One of the latest, left by a girl on his telephone answering machine, makes his neck vibrate with glee: "I am a sixth-grader and I have been smoking for two years. I have not smoked in seven months since you came to our school to speak. I blame you for that."

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center