A Story of Hope
How the WNBA has helped a young woman cope with cancer.
by Ben York / @bjyork
On September 13, 2004, I was diagnosed with large cell undifferentiated endometrial carcinoma with neuroendocrine features. But my specific type and make up are rare. As a matter of fact, I’m the only person known to the medical community who is alive and has this. I am also the youngest to get it and the longest living patient (average life span after diagnosis: 2 years and 3 days). It is estimated that approximately 200 people in the history of the world have had this. Yeah…I’m that damn special. - Emily Smith
Chances are you know someone who is affected by cancer. Unfortunately in today’s world, it’s that widespread. Maybe it’s a family member, or a co-worker, or a public figure. Doesn’t matter. The harsh realization of the vicious disease impacts us all on various levels.
Speaking as a survivor myself, there is one recurring theme that all cancer patients need to possess in order to make the most out of such a difficult situation – hope.
Hope gets you through the worst of times, when you’re exhausted from a four-hour chemotherapy treatment. Hope allows you to step outside yourself and focus on the positive, after you receive a harrowing diagnosis. But most importantly, hope gives you a reason to continue the arduous fight even when it seems like there isn’t anything more that can be done.
For Emily Smith, the WNBA provided her that hope. In fact, she credits the league for her continual motivation to fight and stay positive even to this day.
I first heard of Emily on Twitter one random Wednesday. Somewhat selfishly, I was excited to announce on that day that I was 11 years cancer-free and recently my fiancée made it to the seven years cancer-free anniversary. For those who aren’t aware, hitting the five-year mark is a big deal and a major reason to celebrate.
Emily kindly responded back to me with a heartfelt “congratulations.” But it was what she wrote afterward that caught me by surprise.
Maybe your luck will rub off on me. Fifth time around is the charm, right?
Think about that for a moment – her fifth time around…
That sentence truly made an impression on me. Emily and I got to talking a bit and I quickly realized how special of a person she was. You see, Emily is currently facing her fifth bout with the dreadful disease. She goes in for chemotherapy every day for five hours from six in the morning to just before lunch, even on Sundays. The doctors have tweaked her medications for what has seemed to be the millionth time, but Emily keeps on going. Keeps on fighting.
Emily was kind enough to share her story with me, and in turn, with the world. I had a difficult time containing my own emotions even while exchanging emails with Emily. But the thing I’d like you all to remember while reading her story is Emily’s infectious spirit. Her humor. Her optimism. Think of what she has been through and how it can impact your own life. Think of how inspiring of a person she is; not just to cancer patients, but to everyone.
Just another reason why the WNBA is so much more than a basketball league.
It started with a dream.
In 2004, Emily awoke after having a nightmare that would change her life forever.
“I woke up in a cold sweat and terrified,” Emily said. “I dreamt that I was lying in a hospital bed and my grandmother was standing over me. She said, ‘You’re dying of cancer, Emily’. It was short…but not sweet. Here’s the catch: My grandmother had died of cancer herself almost 10 years before that.”
In the morning, she called her doctor and made an appointment just to be safe. Needless to say, after that terrible dream, she was justifiably nervous. Emily was just about to turn 27 and had always been a healthy person. Still, a dream like that will make anyone feel a bit uneasy.
At the doctor, they told her they hadn’t seen anything alarming and proceeded to perform routine tests. Emily felt somewhat relieved since the doctor wasn’t overly concerned. However, a few days later she received a card in the mail saying she needed to follow-up with the doctor because a few tests had come back abnormal.
Still, no one thought it was anything serious.
A couple months later, she was diagnosed with undifferentiated endometrial carcinoma – an incredibly rare disease. As she stated above, she is the only person known to the medical community who is alive with this diagnosis.
In 2007, after years of chemotherapy and medication, Emily went through the most challenging time in her life. She ended up in the operating room to remove a cyst along with dead tissue, as a result of a bad combination of medication and chemotherapy. However, it was anything but routine.
“I am anemic and the bleeding became uncontrollable,” Emily said. “Within a matter of minutes, I’d bled to the point of no return. The surgeon called time of death and everyone began undressing. The tubes were removed from my airway and the nurses were cleaning up the instruments when, suddenly, I took a breath. And then another. And then another. As you can imagine, chaos ensued. Surgeons were called back into the OR (thankfully they hadn’t been able to tell my family that I’d passed) and they hooked everything back up. After another nine hours of surgery and almost two dozen units of blood, the surgery was over. I’d lived through the rest. It would take my doctor a week to tell me that story. He, like other surgeons, is not faced on a daily basis with “miracles” like that. They see patients come out of things that seem impossible but not while they’re cut wide open and have less than two cups of blood in their bodies. He had to face that he is NOT the surgeon…he is but an instrument to hold other instruments.”
Emily spent the rest of the 2007 summer in the hospital recovering. She would get chemo for seven hours a day through an IV and would watch the WNBA for hours, days, and weeks during that time. Watching the games gave her an outlet and a viable source of entertainment and passion. This, more than anything, gave Emily the hope she needed to mentally face such a tough hurdle.
“I would yell curse words or encouragement,” Emily said with a smile. “I would throw things, get mad, cry happy tears, laugh myself silly, and thoroughly throw myself into every game. More than one doctor and nurse have told me that having my blood pumping like that helped the chemo course through my system. So, Becky Hammon, thank you for your clutch shooting. Lauren Jackson, thank you for the brilliant blocks. Sue Bird, I appreciate every amazing pass. But, honestly, I think I probably owe my life to the Phoenix Mercury. Were it not for Penny [Taylor's] adorable accent and Diana [Taurasi’s] ability to make me so mad I could spit nails then so happy I could kiss her feet, I would not be alive today.”
Her favorite team is the Phoenix Mercury. They were an easy team to follow during their 2007 Championship run while Emily was in the hospital for weeks and months at a time. Seeing the Mercury’s passion for the game helped Emily stay sane in such a turbulent environment.
Emily calls the WNBA, and the Phoenix Mercury, her preferable drug of choice.
“I’m on a message board for people who consider themselves junkies [of the WNBA],” Emily said. “We argue and fight, fuss and laugh, cry and shake our heads, and cuss over every team and every player in the league. And those people, my extended family, are truly junkies in every way. But I think I have the distinction of being the only person on the board for whom the WNBA has TRULY been a drug. It’s a drug I call ‘Onemo’. I have to have chemo…and while doing that I ask for Onemo…One mo’ win. One mo’ brilliant Taylor pass. One mo’ Meka head bob after the three isdrained. One mo’ Taurasi fist-pump. One mo’ passionate Coach Gaines moment. One mo’ season. One mo’ game. One mo’ championship. And when I need it…Dr. Mercury delivers the best high any cancer patient could ever hope to get. They give me life.”
So, Emily keeps on keepin’ on. All the while, maintaining her positive attitude on life and learning to keep humor in the forefront. She isn’t sure what the future holds, but she credits the Mercury and the WNBA as her inspiration to take on anything that comes her way.
It gives her hope, no matter what she faces.
“I will keep trying,” Emily said. “I will keep going. Because if the Mercury can, so can I.”