For a coach who has seen hundreds of swimmers train and race in the pool, a short, slow stint from a junior high school student normally wouldn’t be of note.
For veteran Indian Creek coach Brad Smith last week, it was undoubtedly the happiest he’s been all year.
The swimmer was his 13-year old son, Chase, who had been cleared by doctors to get back in the water after a checkup at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, where he is being treated for a rare form of cancer.
Chase was by no means training. Following nine rounds of chemotherapy and major surgery over the past five months, he had the stamina to swim for only about 10 minutes.
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But the pathology report that no tumor is evident and therefore radiation will not be needed, coupled with the OK for Chase to
get back into the pool, was news that has Chase; his parents, Brad and Kelli Smith;
and his 17-year old sister, Kaitlin, counting their blessings.
Chase was diagnosed in July with Ewing sarcoma, a cancer of the bones and soft tissue. The rare form of cancer most frequently affects children, but children younger than 15 have a survival rate of around 75 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Along with the chemotherapy, which has him spending a week in the hospital for about every three rounds, Chase underwent surgery Oct. 29.
Doctors took a seven-inch section of bone, muscle and flesh from his right leg, replacing it with a cadaver bone. He did three more rounds of chemo in November, will do three more before Christmas and six more between New Year’s Day and the end of February.
The smile on Chase’s face in a Facebook photo that captured his first minutes back in the pool tells the story about what it meant to him to be able to get back in the water.
“Obviously after major surgery like that he hasn’t been able to swim or really do much of anything. Even after he was diagnosed and doing chemo, he was still swimming and running, but in the surgery they basically took out anything the tumor had touched,” Brad Smith said.
‘Ups and downs’
Brad Smith laces his optimism with a sober understanding of the disease Chase is battling.
“Ewing sarcoma is a beast. There’s a high chance of it recurring, so he’ll have to be scanned every few months to see if there are new tumors. It’s potentially fatal at that point. There’s no rhyme or reason for it either; one person who found it in their thumb passed away a year later; while another person who had it in the ribs, lungs and brain was cancer-free two years later.”
Because of its rarity — just 200 cases in the U.S. diagnosed per year — there is not as much research on Ewing sarcoma as other forms of cancer, but there are a number of patients being treated for it at Riley.
Despite the gravity of the battle, the family continues to find things to be encouraged about, such as the news about no radiation being necessary or doctors saying they are impressed with Chase’s attitude and progress.
But Brad Smith doesn’t pretend the battle isn’t a tough one for his family.
“As a family we have ups and downs. There are days we have to hold each other up. We don’t know where we will be a few months down the road, but we want to take each day for what it is,”
One aspect of the battle that the
Smiths definitely are encouraged by is
the outpouring of support shown by
both the local and national swimming communities.
Rhett Wisener, Brad Smith’s
assistant coach at the school, and
former Indian Creek swimmer Katie Reese have organized a social media campaign to show support for their friend, who also swims for the Indian Creek Aquatics Club.
At Indian Creek, students returned to school in August wearing pink shirts and bracelets bearing the ChaseStrong logo Wisener and Reese had created.
Chase has received messages of support online from some of the leading swimmers in the United States, including 16-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps. Swim clubs and high school teams around the area also have gotten involved.
The swim program at Greenfield-
Central High School decided to donate proceeds from a meet in late November along with money raised from selling T-shirts, bag tags, bracelets, cookies, scarves, hats and candles to the Smith family. The effort raised more than $400 in cash and gift cards.
Greenfield-Central girls swimming coach Emily Logan said the gesture is simply an example of the appreciation the close-knit Indiana swimming community has for Smith, who has coached Indian Creek for 21 years, and his family.
“We have coached several years around Brad and can’t imagine what their family is going through. I am so impressed with their faith and strength as a family. Their daughter is a senior, and that year alone is very special. She has such a great attitude about dealing with all of that and realizing that Chase is facing something bigger than that. That’s pretty selfless as a teenager. The swimming community in Indiana is a tight family. This is our small part of supporting them and letting them know they aren’t alone,” Logan said.
Brad Smith described the swimming community as the family’s backbone during the past six months, expressing thanks to Wisener and everyone involved with the team and school for allowing him and his wife to be away from his coaching and their respective teaching duties as needed.
A teacher from the school has been coming to the Smith home to help Chase keep up with his studies since he can’t attend classes yet.
But for Brad Smith, the person who has impressed him most during the ordeal has been Chase himself.
“He doesn’t let anything get him down,” the father said. “He’s my hero.”
What it is: Ewing sarcoma is a type of bone cancer that mostly affects children and teenagers. It rarely affects people over 30.
How it attacks: It originates in bone cells but spreads to other organs by metastasis, affecting the muscle, organs and other tissue the same way it affects bones. As with most childhood cancers, lifestyle changes do not help cure or prevent Ewing sarcoma.
How treatable is it: Ewing sarcoma can be treated successfully in 50-75 percent of its cases. The earlier it is diagnosed, the higher chance of successful treatment.
How is it treated: Several months of aggressive chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed or mixed in with surgery and/or radiation.
Source: National Cancer Institute