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Jennings' death points to dangers of smoking

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LOS ANGELES -- John Wayne, Bob Marley, Steve McQueen and Peter Jennings.

Each man was among the best in his profession, and each, in his own way, epitomized cool. But the mystique was shattered when they each fell victim to lung cancer -- a hazard of smoking brought again into the national spotlight by Jennings' death Sunday.

"It freaked me out," said Michele Ross, 39, of Chatsworth, when she realized Jennings was just 67 when he died.

"Even if I stop, there's still a chance that I can get something later down the line. I don't want to die young, I don't want to have a terminal illness.

"It definitely opened my eyes. I very much am considering stopping and I'm hoping I didn't do damage to myself."

An estimated 400,000 Americans die annually from tobacco-related illness, including 160,000 from lung cancer, statistics show.

Despite warnings that smoking can cause cancer, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease or even impotence, an estimated 54 million Americans smoke. The American Cancer Society says about 174,000 new cases of lung cancer were diagnosed in this country last year.

Susan Fox, 55, a travel company executive, has been smoking since she was 13 -- the same age as Jennings when he started.

"I think twice about it all the time," said the North Hills resident. "There's no allure to smoking. But it's discouraging when he stopped 20 years ago and still got the disease."

Doctors and smoking experts emphasized that, while it's best to have never started smoking, quitting does reduce the chances of getting lung cancer.

"You don't diminish your chances to zero, but they'll help their lungs, decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Unfortunately, we can't make that risk go away completely," said Dr. Robert Figlin, director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center.

The reality is that three out of four smokers want to quit but cannot, and 75 percent of smokers say they wish they never started, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I smoke because it's a stress reliever," said Larue Floyd, 21, of Northridge. "I don't really think about the health risk, that if I smoke this cigarette I'll die. But, I'm thinking about quitting now."

Bryan Hunt, 49, has been smoking since he was a teenager and thinks about quitting -- but only occasionally.

"I don't have many bad habits," said Hunt, of Topanga, who smokes two packs a day. "I justify it by saying I smoke cigarettes, but I don't smoke crack. It's kind of being in denial."

Sanez Pezeshki, 24, of Calabasas has been smoking for six years and says she'll know when it's time to quit.

"If it's going to happen to me, it's going to happen," she said. "I'm going to quit when I'm going to quit."

Abbe Long, supervisor for the counseling department at the California Smokers Helpline, said the two main components that help people quit smoking are internal motivation and planning -- being prepared to quit.

But high-profile lung-cancer deaths such as Jennings' do have the ability to scare people of the habit.

"It's a real shock to see someone who's been in their living room every night for years die," Long said. "It makes people take stock and think, very much like if someone in your family passes away. But, for other people, it doesn't have an effect."

Hollywood has glamorized smoking for decades, and many young smokers today say it's cool to smoke, but those who have seen the disease up close know that's only a fallacy.

Treatment can involve surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or a combination. The prognosis depends on several factors, including the type of lung cancer and the patient's health, as well as whether and where the cancer has spread. Still, survival rates are generally lower than those for most cancers.

Former Glendale resident Patricia Henley knows firsthand what it's like to be taken to the brink of death.

Henley had been smoking Marlboros for 35 years before, in 1997, five doctors surrounded her hospital bed and told her she wasn't suffering from pneumonia but from lung cancer, and she had just four months to live.

One of the doctors told her, "You're going to die the worst death known to mankind," she recalled.

Since chemotherapy put her cancer into remission, Henley, 58, has considered herself lucky.

"You have no idea the hell it takes you to," said Henley, who now lives in Nevada. "It was surreal. Sometimes I felt like I came out of my body and was looking at myself, saying, How could you let this happen, how could you not have been smarter than them?

"I was scared I was going to die and afraid I wouldn't."

She successfully sued Philip Morris, alleging they had erroneously assured her that cigarettes were safe. She won $9 million in punitive damages, which she used to create the Patricia Henley Foundation, which uses the arts to teach children about the hazards of smoking and helps youngsters suffering from cancer, asthma and other smoking-related diseases.

As somebody who experienced lung cancer, Henley said Jennings' death devastated her.

"How does a man go through the wars and go into war zones and a thing like a cigarette kills him?" Henley said. "I don't understand it." Editor Notes: (For use by NYTimes News Service clients)

c.2005 Los Angeles Daily News

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