A common reaction I see when interacting with patients is denial. Let’s use a a couple of examples from my practice to drive home the point. (Names and other identifying features have obviously been changed to protect the identities of the patients.)
John, a pleasant 60ish year old gentleman, has been smoking up to 4 packs of cigarettes a day for decades. He was diagnosed with emphysema (a condition in which the parts of the lungs that help absorb oxygen are basically destroyed, causing shortness of breath) a few years ago, which caused him to cut down to roughly 3 packs per day. As you can imagine, emphysema is not his only medical problem. He’s chronically short of breath, fatigued, and forever catching respiratory infections. Yet in spite of it all, he refuses to acknowledge cigarettes as the top cause of his many ailments. Instead he’ll blame stress, or his diet, or side effects of medications. Sometimes he’ll simply question why we can’t find a cause for his poor health. I’ve tried to convince him to quit several times, but he’s concerned about the possible side effects of the various smoking cessation medications (as if smoking multiple packs a day is safer than any possible side effect of a medication). At the end of the day he’ll quip, “Yeah, yeah, I know I have to quit . . . but let’s get back to what’s going on with me. Why can’t I breathe well? Why am I so tired?”
Stacey, a bubbly 35-year-old lady, weighs in the vicinity of 280 pounds at a height of 5 feet 2 inches. She suffers from sleep apnea (a condition in which the airway becomes blocked throughout the night, causing the breathing to transiently stop or slow down – long term this damages the heart and lungs and can cause people to feel fatigued and wake up with headaches). She also has heartburn, knee pain and shortness of breath. Her blood sugar is on the high side, as is her cholesterol and blood pressure. Both of her parents have diabetes. Yes, she discusses losing weight in a sort of abstract manner. However, even though all of her problems are related to her weight, she always seems to blame them on other factors such as stress, a poor mattress, bad shoes, eating too much spicy food, etc.
Often, people who engage in unhealthy habits such as eating too much junk or smoking will blame the negative impact these behaviors have on their health on other, at times ridiculous, factors. Maybe admitting that their unhealthy habits are contributing to their poor health means that they’ll have to face up to the difficult decision to quit smoking or change the way they eat.
If this sounds like you, then it’s high time to take a hard look at where your life is likely headed. If you’re slowly smoking or eating your way to an early grave, then it’s better to tackle these bad habits now, even though it may be uncomfortable, rather than wait for something truly bad like cancer or a heart attack to strike.