By Thomas Albano
In the summer before his senior year, long jumper Greg Smith noticed a lump on his body — one that would bring his college career to a screeching halt.
Smith has had to jump over plenty of obstacles as a member of the track and field team. But none was bigger than a shocking July 2012 medical diagnosis.
A secondary education and math major, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 2a testicular cancer.
The doctor told him this form of cancer is 98% curable because of the advances of technology and medicine.
Despite the treatment’s success rate, the diagnosis still rocked him.
“You hear the word and then I blanked out,” he said. “I guess it was more shock. You have that thought in the back of your head going into it thinking, ‘I might have cancer’ because I don’t know of any other reason you’d have a giant lump.”
His mission from the start, however, was not to let it get to him.
“I think they say if you smile and laugh through the process you have a way better chance of feeling good about yourself and beating it in the end,” he said.
Smith received an ultrasound before going to a urologist in Morristown, N.J., who would officially diagnose Smith with testicular cancer.
Rick Smith, his father who went with him that day, took in all the information while his son was in a state of shock. However, as a father, Rick Smith was tense himself.
“You hear cancer and it scares you, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going to be next,” he said. “We were fortunate enough that we went to Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City. They’re one of the top cancer centers in the world. We had extensive conversations with the doctors and they told us that since Greg said something and caught it early he had a very high chance of beating it.”
Starting the fight
The process to defeat cancer started in August, when Smith underwent his first surgery to remove the cancer-ridden testicle.
The surgery was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy, which were started on Sept. 10, 2012. After the first round of chemotherapy, Smith came down with a fever that developed into a medical emergency, keeping him in a hospital for seven days.
At this point, Smith was neutropenic, meaning he had a low count of the white blood cells that fight off diseases and infections. He would receive short-acting neupagin shots to combat the fever and raise his white blood cell count.
When doctors informed Rick Smith what could happen throughout the chemotherapy process, he said it was one of the scariest battles he had to watch his son go through.
“There were a couple of days where there was no skin-to-skin contact allowed,” Smith said. “Everybody had to wear a mask and gloves. We were contagious to him; he wasn’t contagious to anybody else. Doctors, nurses, us, everybody had to be fully gowned so they could keep any bacteria away from him.”
While nothing drastic like a fever happened after that first round, Greg Smith’s suffering continued. After each of the remaining three rounds of chemotherapy, he would receive a neulasta shot with hydration that caused some bone pain, sometimes to the point where Smith could barely move.
In addition, Smith could not eat much during his treatment. He lost his appetite; most foods, to him, would taste like metal because of a cystplatinum drug. He would be tired all the time, and the end of the weeks were the worst.
Yet throughout the pain and suffering, Greg Smith was still confident.
“From day one, we were going to beat it,” he said. “So, there was no losing.”
Junior pole vaulter Anthony DeFranco is not only one of Smith’s teammates, but his roommate and one of his closest friends. DeFranco stayed strong, seeing how Smith handled cancer.
“When Greg first said he had cancer, it was a shock,” DeFranco said. “I never expected one of my closest friends to have cancer. He had an optimistic attitude all the time and was always smiling as usual.”
Finally on Nov. 17, 2012, chemotherapy ended for Smith. According to Rick Smith, the doctors informed the family that while the chemotherapy might have done its job, there was still about an 18% chance that the cancer would return. The only way to know for sure was to undergo another surgery.
Rick Smith and his wife, Carol Smith, said they had a feeling their son would choose the surgery in order to hopefully gain some peace of mind about the disease. Sure enough, Greg Smith accepted.
On Jan. 4, 2013, Smith entered a four-hour surgery. The surgery required the doctors to open the track athlete up with an incision from his chest to his pelvis, one that required 70 staples. His organs were pushed aside and about 100 lymph nodes were removed from the back of his abdomen. The surgeons checked for any cancer cells to make sure they were dead, and for any pre-cancerous teratoma cells.
A week later, on Jan. 11, 2013, Greg Smith was deemed cancer-free. However, to him, his mission was not complete. It was only one part of a list of things he needed to accomplish.
Winning the battle
In April 2013, Smith was allowed to work out again, but not at full capacity. He was only able to do one crunch a day and jog very slowly to start.
Smith was able to come back for the indoor track season, but it wasn’t until the outdoor season’s Rider Invitational this year that Smith knew his fight was over.
That day, in front of friends and family at the home track, Smith competed in the long jump. After having a personal best of 21’4”, Smith won the event by jumping one foot farther.
“I’ve now completed everything and I feel like I beat it,” Smith said. “After that I went right to the stands, right to my parents and I gave them both a big hug because we all knew now that I’ve finally beat it.”
Head Coach Bob Hamer felt that this victory for Smith was personal as much as it was athletic.
“He has overcome so much in the last year, fighting cancer,” Hamer said. “To come out and win the meet on a big jump was great to see. He has worked so hard and overcame so many obstacles, and I was really proud of his performance.”
Smith will have to go for blood work and X-rays every two months to make sure the cancer doesn’t return, but his family and friends are positive he will have a long and healthy life.
Rick Smith said that this victory for his son is something every person can learn a lesson from when it comes to dealing with the body.
“The message for people is to understand your body and know your body,” Rick Smith said. “When you think there’s something, get it checked out. And if you do it early enough, you can have a similar result to what Greg has now.”