NBC correspondent Mike Taibbi quit smoking last year after four decades of smoking and after the death of Peter Jennings. He joined host Keith Olbermann, who also kicked the habit, on "Countdown" Nov. 16 to discuss his decision to quit and his experience with cancer screening.
This is a transcript from the show.
In our number-one story, today is the 30th Great American Smokeout. It’s also the second of them since the passing of Peter Jennings of ABC News, who was a smoker, who died of lung cancer.
Our number-one story on "Countdown": Jennings’ death scared many smokers into quitting. Others of us had more direct warnings. While we send as much psychic encouragement as we can to you if you are still trying, tonight, the next step in recovery—even if, like me, your lungs feel like you just bought brand new ones from Sharper Image, should you still be proactive? Should you get a CAT scan for lung cancer?
My friend and colleague Mike Taibbi of NBC News did just that, and took his camera crew with him.
OLBERMANN: Fifteen months clean, roughly, for both of us. Congratulations on that.
MIKE TAIBBI, NBC CORRESPONDENT: And to you, as well, everybody who quit. I heard from hundreds of them today.
OLBERMANN: And that is, I guess, stage one.
But how do you overcome the natural feeling, hell, I quit; isn’t that enough? Now a C.T. scan as well?
TAIBBI: Yes, it’s typical.
We all know, if you have been listening to this for years, that the most important step they can take is what you did, what I did, which is to stop smoking. Now, I stopped after 40 years of a pack of unfiltered cigarettes a day. I won’t even do any brand placement here.
I quit when Peter died. I had worked with Peter. I knew him. I smoked with him, when we all thought we were going to live forever. In fact, we were convinced of it. And I saw what happened to him, diagnosis to death in four months.
And I said, you know, I just don’t want to go that way. Lord, I want to go to heaven. I just don’t want to go right now. And, so, I quit. I was able to quit.
But, from that point forward, I began thinking, what is the next step? I knew about these spiral C.T. Scans, this technology that is extraordinary, that sees everything, that in a 10-second scan, takes, I think, 284 separate bread slices of your lungs. It sees everything.
And, so, I decided to go for that test and brought producer Clare Duffy along with me, and a camera crew. Brian Williams at “Nightly News,” and John Reiss, the executive producer, both said, yes, let’s do a story about this. See how it goes. Are you willing to do a story, no matter what the results are?
And I said, sure. And there it was. I went in. And those are, in fact, pictures of my lungs. There was— the only way to put it is good news for that day, no hint of any cancer, no hint of any emphysema, no hint of any plaque in my coronary arteries.
So, for that day, everybody is fine. But you probably have heard, too, that there is controversy about this, because—that’s Dr. Claudia Henschke, who you’re looking at. She did the study that was published in “The New England Journal of Medicine,” saying that she could prevent, or this kind of scanning, regular scanning, for high-risk people, like me, regular smokers, longtime smokers, could prevent 80 percent of the 160,000 deaths a year from lung cancer.
TAIBBI: There are others in her field, oncologists, who said, you know what? No way. “That is outrageous,” one of them said, Peter Bach from Sloan-Kettering, because there had not been a control group in her study of 31,000 scanned patients, a control group who are not scanned. And that study is under way. It will wrap up in 2010.
I’m an ex-smoker. I’m in the high-risk group. I wanted to know now. So, I went in. And what I know is a very limited amount of very important information, that, at this time, I have no hint of lung cancer. I have no hint of emphysema.
I have a baseline scan, which I can look at in six months or a year. I get this scan with my annual physical. By the way, it is not covered by insurance yet, because it’s not endorsed by the American Cancer Society—but I will get a scan every year. And, if anything changes, if anything shows up—and this scan will see a lesion smaller than a grain of rice—well, then, I can make a decision, in cooperation with my various caregivers.
What do you want to do? Do you want a biopsy? Do you want a PET scan? Do you want surgical intervention, any of those things?
Because I think they do know more now than they did 10 years ago, when they first started looking at images from these spiral CAT scans.
OLBERMANN: You mentioned the doctor referring to long-term smokers. Is that the guideline for getting this done? Or is it age, years smoking, general health? What is it?
TAIBBI: I think they called them smoking years.
So, if I smoked a pack a day for 40 years, I have 40 pack years, they will call it. That’s a lot. Now, there are other people who smoked two or three packs a day for 15 years. They would be in the group, too.
But, yes, there are sort of arbitrary cutoffs that they determine experientially for people who are at the highest risk, and who would, thus, they feel, benefit most from early scanning and early screening. And I am one of them. And 30 will do, yes, sure.
OLBERMANN: Yes, absolutely.
All right. So give me the one thing that got you through 15 months of not smoking.
TAIBBI: I think I was just done, Keith.
TAIBBI: You and I talked about it.
I was just worn out by it, and was just looking at what happened to Peter. I knew him. I admired him. He’s the best I have ever seen in this business. And, all of a sudden, he was silenced.
TAIBBI: He was gone.
Ken Auletta, others, said they couldn’t believe how fast it went.
TAIBBI: And I just said, not me, not me. I am going what I can do. And this was what I could do.
OLBERMANN: May we all have such epiphanies, and not at such great cost.
Mike Taibbi, congrats again on kicking the habit. And thanks for showing the importance of this test to people.