Peg Browning gives adults the willies and she knows it.
She is never without her mechanical "dog" -- a portable oxygen tank on wheels that she trails behind her.
A tube -- she calls it a leash -- connects the tank to her throat. Harsh gasps punctuate her gravely voice, a reminder of how difficult it was for her to learn to talk again after her larynx was removed because of cancer 10 years ago.
Ever since, Ms. Browning, a former high school special education teacher, has been on a mission, testifying at public hearings on the perils of smoking and appearing in Howard County classrooms to show and tell students the consequences of her )) smoking.
Adults cringe. Children draw near.
Children see her not as a preachy adult -- "there is always some good that comes out of bad," she says -- but as a mesmerizing 63-year-old Ellicott City resient who unmasks the simple things they take for granted.
QUESTION: How did you find out you had cancer?
ANSWER: It was 1983. I thought I had a sore throat. I was coughing blood. The doctor -- he was a general practitioner -- said I had a virus. I went to the ear-nose-and-throat man 10 days before Christmas. He knew.
He said it was obvious.
They did a radical laryngectomy, which means they took more than the immediate area. They even went into my back, where the cancer had spread.
Q: Were you a smoker?
A: Of course. I was one of these "I don't smoke; I just put 'em in the ashtray" people. It was one of my favorite excuses.
The cancer never returned, but I also had a second kind that they knew about. They removed two lobes from my lung in August, but they weren't related to the earlier cancer.
Q: Sometimes people have terrible side-effects with radiation treatment. Did you have them for the treatment of your cancers?
A: I've got it right now, and it's getting worse -- and it's painful. People don't live this long with this amount of radiation, and the doctors are not familiar with treating it.
Q: Tell me about your need for portable oxygen.
A: I'm very susceptible to germs. They go straight to my lungs. I got pneumonia about four years ago. The oxygen was supposed to be temporary. But I can't go without it. I've had three close calls. I've had last rites three times.
I'm still here for a reason.
Q: What is that?
A: I'm lucky to be able to touch kids, to be with kids. It's where I
am most comfortable and what I do best.
I am driven to keep it up.
It takes a lot of effort. Now, I have to use a portable microphone when talking with them. My voice is getting less and less.
Q: What do you tell them?
A: I try never to bore them with statistics. I just try to tell them how I live every day and the difficulties of living.
They don't look at me like a freak. Adults do.
People stare in restaurants. I say something, and people laugh. I've had people laugh at me in fast-food lines. I have a message on my phone that says that I have a voice problem; otherwise some callers laugh and hang up. I don't get that response from children.
Q: How did you find a point of contact with children?
A: It wasn't easy the first couple of times. This voice is not the most pleasing -- even to my own ears.
We talk about it. When I had to learn to talk again, I had to limit myself to two syllables. I have to say things in as few words as possible.
I tell them the first word I learned to say after my operation. (She utters a barnyard obscenity.) That gets their attention. They get a kick out of it. They laugh.
Q: What is your message about smoking?
A: I usually tell them they are dumb, dumb, dumb if they smoke, and I ask them if they want a voice like mine.
I ask them if they would like to spend a few hours with me, see how hard it is for me to eat. It's such an effort that I don't eat much. I'm losing weight. It's getting worse and worse.
I tell them [that if water got into the oxygen tube] I could drown in the shower, that I'll never be able to go swimming again.
I used to talk about money spent on cigarettes. That meant nothing to them. The everyday discomforts are what seem to make an impression.
What keeps you going in the face of the difficulties you have every day?
A: I'm just grateful to be here. Why people are so proud of their age and keep it a secret I'll never know. Every day, I'm thankful for it.
Q: You live alone. Do your children worry about you?
A: I think they do. But they have their own lives. I am not wealthy, but I have great friends.
Q: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would want kids or people to know?
A: A smoker's life is a selfish life. I know, because I was one. If you care about others, you won't smoke.
My biggest regret is what I inflicted on my kids and my friends. I was with my daughter [recently], and she's got a cough -- hacking away.
I am responsible. I have never felt sorry for myself -- I did it to myself. But I wish I hadn't done to others what I've done.