‘I remember the bomb going off and the leg shrapnel. 17 years later, more doctors. ’PLEASE, I don’t want to worry anymore.’: Vet survives war injury, melanoma

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“‘Life is meant to be lived out for a purpose. Our main goal can’t just be focused on avoiding death.’

I still remember the moment the bomb went off. I was a young infantry soldier and our unit had just begun conducting missions in Fallujah, Iraq. The blast from the roadside bomb has sent shrapnel through my left leg and left me with a traumatic brain injury. The moments and days that followed are still blurry, but I will never forget the amazing doctors and nurses who took care of me. It was an uneasy feeling to not be able to care for myself, but I quickly realized I was in very capable hands. From the surgery to the care afterward, I began to realize they were doing a job I could not do. There would be a time coming in the recovery that would require work on my part, but at this point, I realized the best thing I could do was to trust the team around me.

Courtesy of Andrew Smith

Fast forward 17 years later, and there I was on the phone talking to a doctor once again. This time it felt really different. About a year earlier, my wife noticed a spot that gradually appeared on the side of my nose. She had encouraged me to get it checked out and then STRONGLY encouraged me when I didn’t listen. I remember it got to the point where she was saying things like, ‘Please,’ and, ‘Just so I don’t have to worry anymore.’ I still didn’t think the spot looked like anything to worry about, but I promised her I would get my doctor to look at it.

Courtesy of Andrew Smith

When I did mention it to my doctor at my yearly physical, he immediately put in a referral to the dermatologist. Within just a few minutes of the appointment with the dermatologist, she decided to go ahead and do a biopsy. This phone call was her telling me the results of the biopsy. It was cancer. ‘Still no big deal,’ I thought. Then she said, ‘It is melanoma.’ That started to change things. You see, melanoma is not ‘just skin cancer.’ It grows fast, spreads to organs, and can be deadly.

The doctor informed me my tumor was not only on my face, but it was also deep. I was already at stage 2b, but mine was also a high risk for having already spread to other parts of my body. My wife was upset by the news, but kept it together better than I thought she would. I was most nervous about telling my kids, but they seemed to take it really good. They did slowly start to ask a lot more questions over the next few days.

For me personally, my mind immediately went to things I could control. I don’t know whether this is just how I am wired, my former military training, or the way my mentors have taught me to think. But I knew to focus on the things I could change and not begin worrying about the rest.

My thought process went like this:

My family. I knew we had just finalized our life insurance and wills late last year. What could have been extremely difficult to do now, had already been taken care of earlier. Words alone cannot describe just how much peace having those simple things already done brought to our situation. I didn’t necessarily feel afraid for myself because of the cancer, but more of the potential impact the cancer diagnosis may have on my family. My biggest worry was my kids would have to see me struggle physically, and I wouldn’t be able to be there for them as they grew up.

Courtesy of Andrew Smith
Courtesy of Andrew Smith

The Orphans. Serving in a combat zone had given me a glimpse of what many children outside of America face on a daily basis. While our ability to help the children of Iraq during combat had been limited, I had begun looking for ways to help orphans after I left the military. In 2015, I started traveling to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and India to see how we could make a difference in the lives of these children. After working with another non-profit for five years, we started our own non-profit, Orphans In Asia, in late 2019, to specifically help fund orphanages and adoptions from Asian countries. But now I was worried. During coronavirus, our donors had been incredible about giving monthly, but we were still operating in the red each month. Now with my new cancer diagnosis, I could only wonder what needed to be done to make sure the kids would have the food and basic necessities they depended on us to provide.

Courtesy of Andrew Smith
Courtesy of Andrew Smith

I emailed one of our donors, a professional poker player named Phil Hellmuth. I had sat next to Phil on a plane a few years earlier, and when he found out about our work with orphans, he immediately began to help meet the needs of the children. This time was no different. When I told Phil about my diagnosis, he immediately wished me a clean, healthy, and timely recovery. Then he said he and his wife wanted to send a check to cover ALL of the food we needed to purchase for the next few months. As a small organization, this news was huge, and it took so much of the unknown out of the immediate future. The joy it brought is indescribable and, as always, I struggled to find the right words to thank the Hellmuth family for the love they were showing our kids.

I hope Phil doesn’t mind that I shared his family’s involvement publicly, but they have made such an impact on hundreds of lives at the orphanage, and their continued support means so much to me.

Once I knew my family and the orphans would be taken care of, my thoughts went back to what had brought us to this point… cancer.

So much was still unknown, but the moment I would learn more was quickly approaching. My first surgery was scheduled, and it was going to be a big one. I was very anxious to see what they would find, but felt so much peace at the same time. The plan was for them to do a wide, local excision to the tumor on my nose. This means they would not only cut out the tumor, but hopefully remove some ‘extra’ around the edges to make sure they got it all. They would then remove a lot of the lymph nodes from my neck, so they could do biopsies to see if the cancer had spread. Finally, they would remove a large enough piece of skin from my neck to make a graft for my new nose.

Courtesy of Andrew Smith

Surgery day came, and I woke up afterward being really mean to my wife. (At least, that is what she tells me.) I don’t remember much, but I do remember being very critical of her driving skills on the way home. Sorry babe!

I looked pretty rough after surgery, but the pain wasn’t too bad. The results of the lymph node biopsies would not be in for another week, and so we began to wait again. The waiting was the worst part. Once again, there was nothing I could do, but knowing we had so many friends praying sure did help. I was once again anxious for the results, but not necessarily afraid.

As before, I looked for the things I could control, which wasn’t much. I did my best to update family/friends and spend time each day walking and talking with my family.

The night before I was to find out the biopsy results, my doctor called… I didn’t know if this was good or bad! Turns out he had good news! My biopsy results had all showed no signs of cancer, and the doctor was confident his margins on the tumor were all good as well.

I wish my cancer story ended here, but sadly, it just might not. Melanoma has a big risk of returning, and I will need to begin monthly checkups every three months for the foreseeable future. My cancer doctor has also recommended I consider being part of a clinical trial that could help lower my chances of a recurrence.

To avoid all risks, I should probably stay out of the sun. To be honest, I know that is not a possibility. I cannot imagine never again spending time playing with the children at our orphanages. Hopefully soon, I will be back in Hawaiian waters, competing in boat races with fellow wounded warriors. I will be more careful about caring for my skin, but I cannot avoid all risks. The good thing is God has given me a wife who will still be reminding me of the things I forget. I know she will pack extra sunscreen and be sure to remind me to put it on. While I know she will worry more than I do, I have no doubt she will continue to push me to still live life.

Life is meant to be lived out for a purpose. Our main goal can’t just be focused on avoiding death.

Over the last few years, I have been blessed to watch others find their purpose and begin impacting lives all across the world. Realize someone out there might be depending on you and the difference you will make in their life.

Cancer is scary. Cancer is unfair. But love will always be bigger than cancer.

If you or a loved one are facing a scary diagnosis, then here are a few things I suggest:

Pray. Not just for the diagnosis to improve, but also for you to improve as an individual, regardless of what the future holds.

Ask questions. Check in with family members to see if they have things they want to ask, or just to see how they are doing. I think this is very important if you have kids. Don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare team and find the answers to things you don’t understand.

Rest. While you may feel fine physically before the surgeries begin, take some time to rest and focus on what the most important things are to you. There will be a time to recover and rehabilitate, but don’t be afraid to be still even before everything begins.

‘For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.'”

Courtesy of Andrew Smith

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Andrew Smith of Virginia. Follow him on Instagram, his website, and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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