Barb Tarbox was just another person like you or me. She was born on April 10, 1961 and notably but unfortunately was a smoker all her life. She died on May 18, 2003 at the age of 42 having succumbed to cancer which had infected both her lungs and her brain. Before her death, she decided to do something noble with the remainder of her life by talking frankly with people about her illness and the circumstances which lead up to her condition. She apparently admitted that even after finding out she had cancer, she still could not quit smoking.
A photojournalist from The Edmonton Journal, Greg Southam was given the assignment of taking pictures of Ms. Tarbox’s last days. Some of those photos are published on the web by the Canadian Association of Journalists. As well, David Staples, a reporter for The Edmonton Journal teamed up with Mr. Southam to write a book Barb’s Miracle: How Barb Tarbox Transformed Her Deadly Cancer Into A Lifesaving Crusade. Mr. Staples has recently written an article about his experiencetalking about Mr. Southam’s pictures and his recording of Ms. Tarbox’s final days.
According to the reporters, Ms. Tarbox wanted to serve as an example, a warning of the dangers of smoking. She wanted the images of her and of her sickness to be used as anti-smoking publicity in the hopes she could in death dissuade others from smoking when she herself could not. She wanted people to see, to understand and to appreciate that cancer was a possibility and it could happen to anybody.
My mother: a personal story
My mother died in 1996 at the age of 66. She had smoked from the age of 14, a span of 52 years. Her cancer started in her lungs, spread to her brain then ended up in her liver. A vibrant woman in life, she had wasted to a scant 84 pounds (38 kg). She had but 6 months from the first diagnosis to her death.
When she first announced her cancer, it was a family meal in August 1995 out on the patio in the backyard. I remember the announcement as being somewhat surreal. I heard the news; I’m not sure I fully grasped the significance.
Over the next few months, I came from out of town to visit several times a month. I remember one time when I was about to leave to start my 2 hour drive home, I hugged my mother and said, "I’m going to miss you." My mother replied, "I know." We both knew we were not talking about me leaving to go home; we were talking about her dying.
In the final weeks, my mother was so weak, she could no longer walk. My father had set up a bed on the main floor of my parents’ home so my mother no longer had to attempt to climb the stairs. The doctor had her taking methadone pills to combat the ever-present pain. My mother didn’t seem to be lucid and I didn’t know whether this was from the constant pain, the medication or both.
At one point, my mother was moaning and I asked her if she was in pain. She sort of said yes so I decided to give her another one of the methadone tablets. My father was worried that this wasn’t following the doctor’s prescription and methadone was addictive. I’m smiling about this now but at the time I said to him a little exasperated, "Who cares? She’s dying!"
After she died, we held a funeral and the community came out to say good-bye to her and wish the rest of us well. That evening, we had a family dinner where we tried to comfort one another and carry on the tradition of eating together but this time, minus one.
At some point during the evening, I asked my sister, my brother and my sister-in-law outside for a private talk. All three of them smoked. They had done so since their teenage years just like Mom. I told all three of them that yes, it was up to them to continue or not but I wanted to remind all three of them that our mother died from smoking. They graciously accepted my "speech" as the tone of it was that I was just a little ticked of being deprived of my mother by something which was totally preventable.
As I write this, it is 2010, 14 years later. Not one of them has stopped smoking. Now am I one to get on my high horse and berate them? I am an alcoholic and I drank like a fish for about ten years until I had the luck, the good fortune to stop. I will be shortly celebrating 23 years of sobriety but I do remember the merry-go-round and the difficulties of getting off. Addiction isn’t fun.
The bunch of us from the family have about another 9 or 10 years until we all reach the age of 66, the age of my mother when she died. What’s going to happen? It’s inevitable that we are all going to die sooner or later; the question is whether or not we are going to be checking out naturally or thanks to the big C. I have joked over the years that being the non smoker of the family, I have inhaled gawd only knows how much second hand smoke. The irony of it all would be that instead of anybody else I get cancer. Now wouldn’t that be a laugh? I would be the very first to look up to the heavens and say, "Good one. You are hilarious!"
Don’t think of that as me being morbidly funny. Heather Crowe (1945-2006) was a Canadian who also got involved in an anti-smoking campaign when she contracted lung cancer. However she had never smoked. She claimed this was from the second-hand smoke she encountered in her job as waitress over 40 years.
Speaking about "cosmic jokes", I am reminded of the story of Chuck from high school. He was a heroin addict and I mean the worst kind. A nice enough guy but he took to stealing from everybody including his friends to support his habit. He was completely out of control.
He showed up at a stoner party once and told me he had been up for 8 days straight on drugs. Man, is it possible to stay awake for 8 days without sleeping? Heck!
Finally, Chuck gets himself off the drug; he gets straighten out and puts his life back on track. At the age of thirty, he is holding down a good job with a construction company and being a responsible citizen. One day, he’s driving a bulldozer and the machine slips on an incline then rolls over crushing Chuck to death. When I heard the news, I laughed at the cosmic joke. Chuck had been to hell and back because of his addiction to smack and it ends up he gets his life snuffed out early in a freak accident.
Life is precious and it is short. Every moment needs to be savoured, treasured and valued beyond gold or diamond. If Barb’s picture stops one person from smoking, it will be worth it. I know she’s not going to stop my brother, my sister and my sister-in-law: too bad, so sad. My father died two days short of his 80th birthday. I would rate that as a good, long life. My mother died at 66 and I would say she lost out in comparison with my Dad. Hmmm, now that I think about it, I would say that I lost out too. I was deprived of my mother early when I should have had her for another 14 years.
According to reports, Ms. Tarbox’s photos have made their way south to the United States and are being considered there for an anti-smoking campaign. Others see the graphic nature of the images of her final days as a hopeful deterrent in the effort to sway a population from the life altering choice of lighting up. I certainly remember the final days of my mother and it is not a pretty sight to watch the human body being consumed alive by a ravenous disease that spares nothing during its unstoppable journey.
If you smoke, I sincerely wish you the best in your efforts to stop. Addiction is not a easy thing to wrestle to the ground. I know; I speak from experience. Remember that an addiction will kill you and just because you didn’t die today, doesn’t mean that sooner or later that day will not come. It’s inevitable.
Click HERE to read more from William Belle
Wikipedia: Barb Tarbox
Barb’s Miracle by Greg Southam, The Edmonton Journal
Photographs of Barb’s last days
The story behind Greg Southam’s renowned deathbed photograph of anti-smoking crusader Barb Tarbox
By David Staples Wed, Nov 10 2010
Wikipedia: Heather Crowe