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 had taken so much from Don, 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. Today, Don and Kay visit schools and other organizations to teach people about the dangers of smoking and the risks it poses to both a smoker’s health and the health of others around them. Don also works to encourage survivors to live life to the fullest.
We are so grateful that Don chose to share his story as part of the #NoMOHeartDisease initiative. As a cancer and heart disease survivor, Don’s story is remarkable. Determination is woven throughout his journey and we are inspired by Don’s commitment to live a life of meaning. We share Don’s story this month in honor of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout. If you currently smoke or vape, we invite you to choose this month to quit. If you don’t smoke, we thank you and ask you to encourage others to be smoke-free, as well.