While battling cancer, educator sneaks cigarettes

October 02, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- Thomas E. Bellavance lost his battle with cigarette smoking.

Now the president of Salisbury State University is battling for his life against the lung cancer he believes resulted from 44 years on the weed.

He shaved what little hair he had left after chemotherapy sessions this summer at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

He still sneaks five or six cigarettes a day.

"There's a hook in me I can't get rid of," said Dr. Bellavance, who is 60. "I've tried to figure out what it is that makes me do it. I've

come to the conclusion that there's some sort of accumulated addicting factor over the years, plus whatever truth there is to the claims that the [tobacco] industry is spiking the cigarettes.

"I've been everywhere. I've tried acupuncture, Smoke Stoppers, hypnotism. Now I'm trying to find a psychiatrist. I'm still smoking. . . . It's the one area of my life where I feel helpless."

This from a man who is known as one of the toughest chiefs in the University of Maryland System, a man praised by fellow presidents for building a model 6,000-student campus in his 14 years here, for raising millions of dollars from the likes of chicken magnate Frank Perdue and for standing up to politicians and university administrators who have tried to tell him what to do.

"I've had tremendous freedom in terms of control," Dr. Bellavance said. "One day, after I'm gone, this place will be the William and Mary of Maryland," referring to the highly regarded public college in Virginia.

"I'd go outside with him so he could have a smoke," said William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland College Park, a nonsmoker. "I'd say to myself, 'Here's an intelligent, tough-minded guy who knows how to make decisions, and he can't make a decision to give up smoking.' It's a mystery."

In an interview in his office here Thursday, Dr. Bellavance was asked why an intellectual, a role model, a man known for uncompromising administration, would continue to smoke, knowing it could kill him.

"It's an addiction," he said, arms apart, palms up, voice husky. "It's like heroin addiction, maybe worse. There ought to be smoke centers where you can go and dry out for a few days.

"It's not just the nicotine. Smoking is psychologically intertwined with everything else I do. Asking me why I don't give it up is like asking a heroin addict why he doesn't give it up."

He started smoking when he was 16, Dr. Bellavance said, but even before that he and his brother smoked corn silk in Moosup, Conn., where he grew up.

"Everyone smoked. The principal of my high school smoked. The president [Franklin Roosevelt] smoked. Every person I knew who was a male smoked. Movie stars smoked. In Chicago you could smoke in movie theaters well into the '60s. If you didn't smoke, you felt left out."

One of his professors, Dr. Bellavance said, smoked a cigar while he lectured, tapping the ashes into the blackboard chalk tray.

At the end of class he used an eraser to sweep them into a trash can. Dr. Bellavance adopted the practice, with cigarettes, when he taught American thought and language in the 1960s at Michigan State University.

He has tried to quit numerous times, Dr. Bellavance said. Once he enrolled in a stop-smoking program "and got down to one a day. But three of us flunked out of a class of 30 or so."

However, he gave up drinking in a New Year's resolution last January, "and it was a piece of cake."

One morning three months ago, he discovered "hard nodes" on his neck while he was shaving. Biopsies and CAT scans found lung cancer that was too widespread for surgery or radiation treatment.

Dr. Bellavance's treatment involves two days a month of chemotherapy in Baltimore followed by regular visits to an oncologist in Salisbury.

He takes pills to counter nausea and gives himself shots to help restore some of the cells killed by the chemicals.

He said CAT scans now show his tumor is half its original size.

Dr. Bellavance, whose father died of cancer, has little use for statewide smoking bans like the one now tied up in Maryland courts, the one that both major candidates for governor say is too extreme.

Go after young smokers, he says, adding: "It's too late to reform people like me."

Tax cigarettes to the hilt, he says, and sell them only in liquor stores. End government subsidies to tobacco growers. Put messages on cigarette packages "that really say what's going on. What is this about carbon monoxide? Big deal! I'd put my money on the tar. Tars begin to accumulate in your lungs."

His advice to young people thinking of taking up the habit:

"Don't be used. It's not macho, not 'in,' not cool. Most of society frowns on it. And it'll kill you."

Not enough attention is paid to nicotine addiction, he believes.

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