Asaad M. and Leah M.’s Story
Leah, age 52, started smoking menthol cigarettes when she was a teenager. She continued to smoke on and off into adulthood, sometimes smoking more heavily when she felt stressed.
Leah was 45 years old when she started having stomach pain and losing weight. She was a single parent with one income and no health insurance, and she worried that she couldn’t afford to be sick. But when the pain became unbearable, Leah had to get medical help. That’s when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer from smoking.
Leah’s son, Asaad, was 19 years old at the time. His young life was just beginning, but he immediately put everything on hold to become Leah’s full-time caregiver. He quickly learned how to grocery shop and cook meals, manage a household budget, schedule doctors’ appointments, and keep his mother’s spirits up. For Asaad, choosing to care for Leah was simple. “This is the person who brought me into the world, so I stand by her,” Asaad said. “Being there – that’s what a son is.”
Leah’s cancer progressed to Stage 4 as it spread to her lungs, and in 2016, she had a tumor removed from her left lung. She also quit smoking for good after several attempts. After seeing the harmful effects cigarettes had on Leah, Asaad is proud of his mother for quitting. Now 25 years old, Asaad is certain he’ll never start smoking.
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Leah started smoking menthol cigarettes when she was 17 years old. Some of her friends smoked and she was curious about the experience. Before long, she was smoking every day.
At age 20, Leah had a daughter, and at age 27, she had a son, Asaad. She quit smoking during both her pregnancies, but she started again after Asaad was born. Leah preferred menthol cigarettes and smoked two packs a week for the next 18 years.
In 2012, at age 45, Leah started noticing she frequently had stomach cramps, gas, and bloating. She didn’t have an appetite and lost weight. Leah knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to face it. As a single parent with one income and no health insurance, Leah felt she couldn’t afford to be sick. But when the pain in her abdomen became unbearable, she decided to get medical help. In 2014, Leah was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Doctors removed polyps from her colon and scheduled her for radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
As Leah planned her next steps, her biggest concern was for Asaad, who had his own health challenges. Asaad’s father died a few years earlier, and Leah worried that she wouldn’t be around to care for him. “I told myself, I have to beat this for Asaad, he can’t be left with no living parent,” Leah said.
Asaad was 19 years old when Leah’s cancer was diagnosed. He had recently started an internship in the fashion industry, where he planned to pursue a career. A typical young adult, he spent his free time with friends, going to movies and parties. When Leah shared her devastating news, all that changed. Asaad immediately put his young life on hold to become her full-time caregiver.
“It was a big challenge, but I wasn’t ever scared,” said Asaad, now 25 years old. “I was just like, ‘Okay, we’ll fight this together. That’s that.’”
For Asaad, it was an easy choice. He remembered his mom sitting by his bedside holding his hand when he was sick as a child. He remembered playing at the local YMCA while his mom worked long hours to provide for them. He knew he was the only family member able to take on Leah’s care. She had always been there for him; now he wanted to be there for her.
Leah said it was “heartbreaking” to interrupt Asaad’s plans just as he launched into adulthood. “I wish I never smoked,” she said. “It was ignorant for me to think I wasn’t hurting anyone. I never considered who would take care of me if I became ill.”
Asaad hit the ground running and learned quickly. He took over the everyday tasks of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and managing their money. He scheduled all of Leah’s medical visits and joined her at appointments. Because Leah was too sick to drive and Asaad didn’t have a driver’s license, he found them an affordable apartment within walking distance of Leah’s treatment facility. They developed a daily routine: Asaad got Leah out of bed, helped her shower and dress, prepared her breakfast and medications, and walked the dog. “Being a caregiver never stops,” said Asaad. “It’s 25 hours a day, 8 days a week.”
Despite the treatments, Leah’s cancer progressed to Stage 4 as it spread to her lungs. In 2016, she had a tumor removed from her left lung. That same year, she finally quit smoking completely following several attempts. Asaad is proud of his mother for quitting. After witnessing the harmful effects smoking had on Leah, Asaad feels sick from the smell of cigarettes or seeing other people smoke. “I’ll never smoke a cigarette because I don’t want chemicals in my body,” he said.
Although both Asaad and Leah recognize the future is uncertain, they are optimistic. Asaad wants to become a fashion buyer and ultimately design his own line of suits. His mom wants him to go to college and take business classes.
Reflecting on their journey together, Asaad and Leah agreed that being a caregiver requires patience, understanding, sensitivity, empathy, and a tough skin. “There hasn’t been one day when I thought I can’t do this,” Asaad said about giving care to Leah. “This is the person who brought me into the world, so I stand by her. Being there – that’s what a son is.”