Cutting effortlessly through the water, Chase Smith feels as comfortable in the pool as he does on dry land.
The 15-year-old Trafalgar resident has been swimming for almost his entire life, and over that time, he has never shied away from a challenge in the pool. A difficult race or a long, hard day of practice isn’t something to avoid; only by approaching it head-on with all of his effort will he overcome it and get better.
That’s the mindset he’s taking after being diagnosed with cancer for the second time.
“I’m going full steam ahead. When we first got the news, I was upset, as anyone would be. But I took it as another challenge, and I’m ready to get started fighting and prove I can do it again,” he said.
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Smith started chemotherapy Monday to aggressively treat the cancer that has been found in his leg muscles. The tumor formed in the exact same location on his right leg that it did in 2014. This time, cancerous cells may have also spread to his lymph nodes.
After enduring months of chemotherapy, surgery and physical therapy once already, the prospect of a second struggle against cancer is daunting. But it’s one that Smith — with the help of his faith, his family and a community of supporters — is prepared for.
“God gives his toughest warriors the hardest battles. But he doesn’t just leave you alone; he gives you the blessings and tools you need to get through it,” he said. “It’s all happened for a reason, and it’s been great having everyone be there behind me. It gives me that extra momentum.”
Once again throughout Johnson County, people are proud to say they’re ChaseStrong.
During his first bout with cancer, the Indian Creek community, and swimmers throughout Indiana and the country, adopted ChaseStrong as their rallying cry. People wore bracelets, made T-shirts with the hashtag and sent their support through social media.
Smith’s father, Brad Smith, is the head swimming coach at Indian Creek High School. His mother, Kelli Smith, also is active in supporting the local swim teams.
Michael Phelps sent a message in 2014, holding a poster board that read, “Chase, Wishing you a speedy recovery! Hope you’re up and splashing soon!” Record-breaking swimmers Eric Shanteau, Cullen Jones and Mary DeScenza Mohler posted pictures of themselves on his page and offered encouraging words.
With the news that his cancer has returned, people are reviving their efforts. Indian Creek High School, where Chase Smith is starting his freshman year, hosted ChaseStrong day on Friday. Staff and students sported the T-shirts standing in solidarity with the Smith family.
“Our community has been nothing but supportive. That’s what we’ve leaned on. People are wearing the shirts everywhere, the texts, the e-mails, people dropping off gift cards,” Brad Smith said. “It’s what we’re using as our backbone.”
Chase Smith was 13 when he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in the summer of 2014, after suffering from increasing leg pain. Ewing sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that forms in the bones or in soft tissue around the bones. The cancer is considered rare, though it most often strikes children.
His doctors at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health devised an intensive chemotherapy treatment, requiring Chase Smith to check into the hospital every two weeks from July to October, alternating between two- and five-day stays for chemotherapy.
After it appeared the tumor had stopped growing, Smith underwent surgery to remove 7 inches of bone and muscle from his right leg. A cadaver bone was fused into the space, with additional chemotherapy ordered to kill any remaining cancerous cells.
The treatment appeared to work. By March of 2015, Smith was cancer free. Scans taken every three months confirmed that that tumors had not returned. He and his family focused on the arduous process of physical rehabilitation, working to rebuild muscle in his afflicted leg.
Slowly, he returned to the pool, first just to float in the water and kick around. But as his leg strength built back up, he started competing again. As recently as July, Smith’s oncology surgeon found that the bone growth was progressing nicely, and he could push his physical activity even more, Brad Smith said.
“We were in a really good spot. Everything seemed to be going well, 16 months with no evidence of cancer,” he said.
But in mid-July, Chase Smith noticed that a small, almost imperceptible lump had formed in his right leg. He wasn’t sure what the growth was, but considering his history, told his parents about it. The family made an appointment at Riley Hospital for Children, where the oncologist found that it was a solid mass with blood flow to it — indicators of a malignant tumor.
A biopsy in late July confirmed the Smith family’s worst fears.
“The first time, you just roll with the punches. You go with whatever you have to do that day, and you tackle it,” Brad Smith said. “Knowing the road we faced before, and what we have now, that makes it tough.”
Because Ewing sarcoma often afflicts the lungs, additional testing was needed to see if the cancer appeared elsewhere. Chase Smith’s lungs were clear and cancer-free, but one of his lymph nodes raised concerns that cancerous cells had spread.
“Our oncologist is going to assume it’s Ewing sarcoma, but from the scan, they can’t tell if it’s cancer or if the lymph node is just active. It could be other things, but they’re going like it’s malignant,” Brad Smith said.
As before, the cancer will require an aggressive schedule of chemotherapy. Chase Smith will receive some of the same chemotherapy drugs that were so effective previously, mixed with a new blend of medication to kill the cancerous cells.
He is initially scheduled for three rounds of chemotherapy as his doctors check the effectiveness of the treatment. If the tumor has decreased in size, he’ll have surgery to remove the mass, then follow up with nine more rounds. Chase Smith also will need targeted radiation, which he did not have to have last time.
“The roadmap is a little bit unclear, because so much depends on what happens after those first few chemo treatments,” Brad Smith said. “There are a lot of things that are in his favor. They tend to say that the longer the length of time between recurrences, the better off it is. We had been 16 months of nothing evident, so doctors are encouraged by that.”
Instead of checking into the hospital for extended stays, Chase Smith will be able to receive his chemotherapy over a few hours and then go home to recover. He’ll be able to have more interaction with his friends, and have a better quality of life as he goes through the nausea and fatigue.
The hope is also that Chase Smith will be able to swim when he feels up to it. That has made the prospect of months of treatment more palatable.
He knows that cancer will be difficult again. But being in the pool will serve to buoy his spirit and keep his body strong.
“If you can find your passion, it’s very special. At a young age, I found that passion. It’s very important for me to stay with what I love. Staying in that routine keeps me going,” he said.
Who: Chase Smith
Grade: Freshman at Indian Creek High School
Family: Parents, Brad and Kelli Smith; sister, Kaitlin
Memberships: Indian Creek High School swimming team and Indian Creek Aquatic Club