Dying of cancer, she used her last days to warn kids of the dangers of smoking
Justin Thompson, CBC News Online
When doctors diagnosed Barbara Tarbox with stage-four lung cancer in September 2002, she had been smoking since she was 11 years old, in the seventh grade.
She took the diagnosis as a call to arms: she travelled to schools across Canada and spoke to the media, using her own cancer-wracked body to tell of the dangers of smoking.
The relentless speaking schedule made the Edmonton mother famous. Her friend Tracy Mueller took time off work to be with her on the busy tour.
"Barb asks the kids to look at somebody close to them," said Mueller in a January 2003 interview, her eyes welling with tears. "And she looks at me and that gets me every time. I thought it would get easier with each presentation but it's getting harder because I know that the end is coming."
Tarbox spoke in terms both poignant and graphic, and illustrated her pain to the minutest detail. Her talks often left children in tears. As she told CBC reporter Judy Piercey in January 2003, that was her intention.
"I could sit on my couch and I could cry and feel sorry for myself. Or I could help change the life of another. And by God, I'm not standing still."|
- Barb Tarbox
"I would hope to God this would scare them because it scared the daylights out of me," she said. "Look at me."
"Look at my arms," she told one group of Edmonton children just months after being diagnosed with cancer. "I don't know if you can see it but it's where the bones stick out. You know what? The bones stick out of every area of my body now. My feet, my legs are blue, or they like to call it cyanotic, which is like a purple tinge. And you know what happens? When your tissues start to die, they turn black. Oh yes! Oh yes, people. They turn black. And there isn't a perfume on the market that can hide that smell. All the result of smoking."
Her words reached beyond school children. Edmonton radio host Bob Stafford recalled a telephone call he received after Tarbox made one of a handful of appearances on his show.
"I had a truck driver phone me about 10 days after the second interview that I had with Barb and he was in tears and he told me that after listening to my interview, he threw a cigarette package out the window and he hadn't smoked in 10 days at that point," he said. "And he believed that Barb had actually saved his life."
Tarbox wore a leopard-print hat when she spoke to school groups. She would yank it off to reveal a head made bald by chemotherapy treatments.
"I love hairstyles," she told the CBC in January 2003. "I loved hair. Forty-one years of hair gone in 10 bloody days. What's worse than me ripping off my hat and showing (the students) what cancer does? They have to see the honesty. Now how would you feel if you're 14 years old and somebody said 'hey, when you're a smoker, do you want to end up like me?'"
Her own mother was diagnosed with the same stage-four terminal cancer in the 1980s and at the time, Tarbox was warned the same fate would await her if she continued to smoke. It's a message she tried to pass on in her talks to school groups.
"You are all so much above this," she told the Edmonton group. "You're intelligent. You're energetic. You have the world before you in the palms of your hands. Any dream you have is possible. But if you walk the path I walked, this is the path you will walk. And I don't want any of you ever to walk this walk."
By early March 2003, Tarbox reached her goal of bringing her message to more than 50,000 Canadian teens.
It was a milestone in her crusade, but came at a time of rapidly declining health. By April the six-foot-tall Tarbox weighed only 85 pounds.
And even though doctors did not expect her to live beyond Christmas 2002, Tarbox battled the disease to the end. She made her last public appearance on April 17, 2003, when she spoke to a group of junior and senior high school students in Edmonton.
By April 28, she checked herself into hospital, unable to walk or eat on her own.
She died on May 18, 2003 at the age of 42, leaving husband Pat, and daughter Mackenzie.