Before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, Alice Curry advocated for smoke-free air policies. Here is her story on the diagnosis that changed her life.
Like many baby boomers, Alice Curry wasn’t particularly worried about entering her sixties. Her two kids were now all grown up and starting families of their own. As the executive director of the Columbus Philharmonic and a board member of several local non-profits, her professional life was busy and rewarding.
Because she had no history of cancer in her family and her own mother lived to be 92, Alice was expecting to enjoy her golden years with her husband Jerry, the pastor of St. George Lutheran Church, and her yellow lab, Beauty, relaxing and helping to make Bartholomew County, where she has lived for over 25 years, a better place.
In August 2009, everything changed when Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was shocked. Her first thought was “Why me? I never smoked a cigarette in my life.”
“I remember when we would be in the car together, I would lie down in the back seat, so the smoke wouldn’t blow in my face.”
This question first led Alice to recall her childhood growing up on a farm south of Champaign, Illinois. “My dad was a three-pack-a-day smoker and I remember when we would be in the car together, I would lie down in the back seat, so the smoke wouldn’t blow in my face,” she said. “Then in high school, there were a few boys who would go down to the end of the road to smoke, but I always thought they were geeks.”
Even during her college years at Indiana University when some of her sorority sisters and a few of the guys she dated smoked, she was never tempted to light up. “My major was music education with an emphasis on vocals,” Alice said, “and I didn’t want to ruin my voice.”
When she got her first job as a teacher in La Grange, a Chicago suburb, she realized her efforts to protect her vocal cords was not going very well. Between classes, her only refuge was the teachers lounge, but since most of the other teachers smoked, she was constantly engulfed in the stinky clouds of hazy tobacco fumes.
After a few other teaching jobs – and equally smoky teachers’ lounges – Alice changed careers. Her next position, which took her to the Quad Cities as one of the first female sales reps for Xerox, was like moving from the frying pan into the fire, in terms of exposure to smoke. “There were only two of us in the office who didn’t smoke and all the sales reps shared a spaced called ‘the bull pen.’ Since I was breaking new ground, I had to fit in as ‘one of the guys,’ so I couldn’t complain about the ever-present smoke cloud. Leaving the office wasn’t much better, since most of the customers smoked, too!”
"There were only two of us in the office who didn’t smoke and all the sales reps shared a spaced called ‘the bull pen."
With all the links between secondhand smoke and lung cancer now firmly established, Alice feels confident that these decades of exposure earlier in her life led to her current condition. In recent months, the cancer has gotten worse, spreading to her liver and stomach. However, when she heard about a bill proposed by Rep. Charlie Brown to make Indiana workplaces smokefree, she saw an opportunity to use her situation to help others. She wrote a letter to Senator Greg Walker that was published in the Columbus Republic and also testified before the Public Policy committee.
In her testimony, she compared the Japanese workers exposed to radiation during the ongoing nuclear crisis to Hoosiers exposed to second hand smoke and made the powerful point that both cases pose grave health threats – and that the only sensible solution is for governments to take measures to protect workers from cancer-causing hazards. “By not passing the clean air bill you are giving me and thousands of other Hoosiers an early death sentence,” she said. “Every worker in Indiana should have the ability to work at a job that doesn’t make them sick, or worse – kill them – especially when we know how to avoid it.”
Forcing the Legislators to consider the class implications of their decision, she added, “Name any white collar workplace and you are naming a smoke free workplace. But employees in blue collar workplaces in Indiana don’t get to enjoy the same protections from secondhand smoke. Are you willing to put a price on the life of a college student tending bar or a parent working at a casino?”
Alice’s question was answered two weeks later when the Senate’s Public Policy committee killed the Clean Air Act. Before the vote that day, Alice had spoke at a Capitol event sponsored by The American Cancer Society where she had rallied the attendees to urge their legislators to support the bill. “I think our legislators listened to the special interest groups, rather than the majority of their constituents,” she said in response to the Clean Air Act’s defeat.
“I think our legislators listened to the special interest groups, rather than the majority of their constituents,”
Despite this frustrating development, Alice was committed to continue speaking out to protect Indiana’s workers. “I’m not trying to get people to stop smoking,” she said. “I’m not their mother. They can go outside to smoke and alleviate a lot of harm to people who shouldn’t have to suffer because of someone else’s habit.”