Falmouth Sixth Grader Shares His Story About Cancer with Classmates

Tyler Smith with his mother, Paula Smith.
ELIZABETH W. SAITO/ENTERPRISE - Tyler Smith with his mother, Paula Smith.

Tyler C. Smith, 13, was diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood, on July 31, 2011.

He spent the next 48 days in Boston Children’s Hospital receiving chemotherapy. He left the hospital 20 pounds lighter and uncertain he would survive.

Last Friday, Tyler, who is now in remission although still on daily “long-term maintenance” chemotherapy treatment, told the story of his diagnosis and recovery to his classmates at Morse Pond School, where he is a 6th grader.

Tyler stood before his fellow students in the auditorium and gave an illustrated PowerPoint presentation titled, “My Leukemia Journey (so far).”

“The cells in my blood started mutating and multiplying, and eventually taking over my body,” Tyler told his classmates.

Tyler’s delivery was succinct, articulate and unsentimental.

He showed a slide listing all the medications he took. “There were a lot of names I can’t pronounce,” he said.

Did you ever feel like giving up, one of them asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’d say, ‘I can’t keep doing this,’ but you can’t do that because then you’d die.”

Doctors don’t know what causes his type of leukemia, he said. “They have no idea why it happens, it’s just bad luck.”

“Some days I didn’t feel good and I just laid on the couch all day,” he said. The picture on the accompanying slide showed a frail, bald Tyler, lying in a hospital bed with a face mask on.

“I was so sick it was even hard to stand up and walk,” he said.

“But things are finally getting back to normal,” Tyler said. He attends school again and plays on a hockey team.

There was a photo montage of family and friends who had shaved their heads in solidarity, all bald and grinning at the camera. The caption read: “Chemo made us lose our hair.”

Tyler’s final slide summed up his experience with leukemia with a quote from him that read, “The doctors give me all this toxic stuff to make me better ... huh.”

Tyler then took several questions from his classmates.

Did you ever feel like giving up, one of them asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’d say, ‘I can’t keep doing this,’ but you can’t do that because then you’d die.”

A female staff member in the front row wiped away tears. Tyler looked calmly about the auditorium and called on the next student.

Begins Fundraiser for Cancer Research

Today marks the first day in a three-week fundraiser, Pennies for Patients, that Tyler has spearheaded at his school. The money will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to support blood cancer research and drug development.

Last year, Morse Pond School raised $5,895 doing Pennies for Patients when Tyler was a 5th grader, his first year back in school after getting sick.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the particular cancer that affected Tyler, is the most common form of pediatric cancer. The disease has a 66 percent survival rate.

After his presentation in the auditorium, Tyler and his mother, Paula M. Smith, sat in the school’s cafeteria talking about Tyler’s battle with cancer.

Did Tyler ever wonder why he had the “bad luck” to get cancer?

“Yeah, I did, ‘Why me, why not someone who is bad in their life?’ ” he said.

“But it’s probably because you’re strong enough to fight through it,” Ms. Smith said to her son.

Tyler’s long-term maintenance chemotherapy will end in November. He said he is looking forward to getting off drugs, especially the steroid that makes his face red and puffy.

He is also looking forward to playing on a hockey team that allows body checking. With his chemotherapy port still implanted in his body, doctors forbade the rough physical contact.

“I’m obsessed with hockey,” said Tyler. “Not doing hockey is not living.”

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Due to his illness, Tyler is a year behind his former classmates in school. Last year, when he started school again at Morse Pond as a 5th grader, his oncologist was still unsure whether that was the best choice for him.

But Tyler said he “begged” his mother and doctor to allow him to go. “All I’d do is stay home and do nothing.” He looked slyly at his mother and said, “I guess you could say we kind of got sick of each other.”

“Like an old married couple,” his mother smiled.

Ms. Smith said sending Tyler back to school last year was harder than sending him to kindergarten. “I balled my eyes out. Because we’d been together 24/7, and letting him go, and leave my side” was a big deal, she said.

Of the fundraiser, Ms. Smith said, “Now that he’s doing so well, we feel it’s our time to give back.”

She said there are some targeted chemotherapy drugs in development that would hopefully help leukemia patients without all the terrible side effects.

“If they can find a way to minimize these side effects from the chemo drugs that would be huge,” Ms. Smith said.

Tyler’s father is Brian Smith. He has a little brother, Alden J. Smith, 7. The family lives in North Falmouth.

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  • MAC

    Tyler, Am so glad to see that you are doing so well. My best wishes and prayers for your successful treatments and good health. Great article, you are a special young man.