Former Hampton High basketball star Gary Smith stays strong in battle with leukemia

Diseases and IllnessesHealthLeukemiaCancerMinority Groups

All along, Gary Smith knew. He was a health freak who was used to having boundless energy, and now he couldn't summon enough strength to lift a fork to his mouth? The nights sweats, the trembling hands, the crushing fatigue … no matter what the experts told him, he knew something was wrong.

And when he was proven right, he also knew. Despite the grim diagnosis -- could it get more grim than cancer? -- Smith was certain he would do what needed to be done. Bring on the chemo, bring on the trips up I-64 to see his doctors in Richmond. Bring it all on, because he knew he'd beat this.

And now, eight months after the ordeal began, Gary Smith has been proven right again. The cancerous cells that were in his bone marrow are gone. He's in complete remission.

So save your tears, though he appreciates the concern.

"Just because you're diagnosed with cancer, that doesn't mean you have to die," said Smith, who as a senior at Hampton High School was named the Daily Press Basketball Player of the Year in 2003. "I tell people all the time, I'm not dead and I ain't dying. It's just something I have to deal with.

"Now I'm able to sit here and say I've got a clean bill of health. And I said once it left my body, it wasn't going to come back."

There is one final hurdle, an important one. To make certain the cancer doesn't return, Smith needs a bone marrow transplant. So far, a suitable donor hasn't been found.

Smith doesn't want to wait. So he's organizing a bone marrow drive, which is set for next Saturday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at the Boo Williams Sportsplex. His goal is not only to find a match for himself, but to increase the number of African-Americans on the national registry.

"A lot of people in our community aren't on the registry, which makes it hard for another African-American who needs a transplant," Smith said. "If I can find a match and get more people on the registry, that's really what I want to accomplish on that day.

"This is a situation where I can't focus solely on me. I want to help others as well."

"I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG"

Before all this, Gary Smith was the picture of health. Seven years removed from his senior season at Hampton, when he averaged 21 points a game, he was still playing on the side and working out. He was conscious about every morsel he put in his body.

Six-feet tall and 170 healthy pounds. "Monstar," as everyone knew him, had his degree from VCU and was living life.

But this past February, not long after his 25th birthday, he began feeling sluggish. He went to his doctor, who conducted test after test and determined it to be mononucleosis. But weeks went by and he didn't feel any better. In fact, he felt worse.

One day in April, he came home from his sales/marketing job at Xerox, and his hand began trembling. His temperature reached 105 degrees and he couldn't feed himself. He went to the emergency room but was told it was only the effects of the mono and dehydration. They sent him home.

The next day, he was no better. Back to the ER he went, and this time they admitted him to the hospital. Five days and several tests later, they released him. There was a minor concern about his white blood cell count, but that had improved. You're fine, they told him.

Except Smith knew he wasn't.

"I was worn down," he said. "And I knew something was wrong when I had these real, real, real, real bad night sweats. I was dripping. I knew something was up. And that was the scariest part. I knew something was wrong, but they just couldn't find it."

Bad news comes in the strangest ways. Because Smith had developed a throat infection, apparently a result of the mono, he had his adenoids and tonsils removed in June. No big deal. But two weeks later, he got a call from his doctor.

Are you home, he was asked? Yes, Smith answered. Are you alone, he was asked? No, my fiancé is with me, Smith said. Well, he was told, I need to talk with you about the results of your test.

"That's when I knew something was wrong," Smith said. "And from there, everything has been a whirlwind."

The diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells.

Smith wondered how he'd tell his family. Then he decided he wouldn't. He'd beat this, and then he'd tell them all about it.

Of course, that was the fear talking. All it took was one conversation over the phone with his mother. Mothers always know when their children aren't right.

Like anyone who hears the word "cancer," Smith began wondering how much time he had. Being told that that 90 percent of his bone marrow had leukemic cells didn't help. That number was so high, he was told, that chemotherapy likely would have no effect.

Yet that was the only real option. So every two weeks, he'd go in for a round of chemo. It left him fatigued but amazingly, he's had no nausea. Smith has only lost about 10 pounds since February.

"You pray to God and believe, even though you know your faith is going to be tested to the ultimate degree," Smith said. "Then you just suck it up and do what you have to do."

His courage inspired those close to him.

"He's learned to handle this situation like the champ he is," said his mother, Priscilla. "I'm proud of him."

His father, Gary Sr., is the head basketball coach at Peninsula Catholic High School. He remembers a day last month when the team was working out. Gary Jr. was watching and decided, what the heck, to get his high tops out of the car and play.

Well, it didn't go well. His legs were weak and he fell a couple of times. He spotted up for a 3-pointer, which didn't even make the rim.

"But he didn't quit," Gary Sr. said. "He's always been a fighter, and he's always been a winner. This situation will be no different."

Remember that 90 percent number? The chemo was supposed to make that zero. His doctors at VCU's Massey Cancer Center were hoping that would happen by August, but it was still 15 percent. Smith didn't worry -- in fact, he compared it to a basketball game.

Maybe he was behind. But he's at his best in clutch situations.

On Sept. 23, a Thursday, he underwent another bone marrow test. And the following Monday, he received the official results. The percentage, finally, was zero.

"They gave me the printout and said, 'I'm sure you've been waiting for this,'" he said. "I was numb. I was floored. The only thing I could do was give thanks to God."

ONE MORE HURDLE

Smith is still undergoing chemotherapy as a precaution. Yet because cancer returns in about half of acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients, the next step finding a suitable donor for a bone marrow transplant.

A common misconception is that immediately family members offer the best hope. But according to the National Marrow Donor Program, only 30 percent of patients find a match among their siblings or parents

Unfortunately, Smith was one of the 70 percent. Neither his younger brother, Jaraan, nor his older sister, Akia, were matches. That leaves a national registry of total strangers and would-be donors.

But an unfortunate fact is that whites have a far better chance of finding a match than African-Americans. Of the approximately 8.3 million potential donors on the NMDP's list, only 600,000 (7 percent) are African-American.

It's not impossible for a donor and recipient to be of different races, but it is extremely rare. Because tissue types are inherited, matches are most likely within the same racial or ethnic background.

Hoping to diversify the registry, July was declared African-American Bone Marrow Awareness Month by the NMDP and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Smith hopes his event next Saturday can do the same.

"There's one of two things I can do," he said. "I can sit here and wait for them, or I can take the initiative. I just said, let's set up our own drive. My story, my situation, might be something can inspire others and get more people on the registry.

"The worst moments I've had have made me so much stronger. If somebody had asked me if I could be a cancer patient, I'd have said, 'I doubt it.' But you find that strength, man, and you hold on to God.

"I know there's a purpose for me going through this. Maybe to help somebody else."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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