For Young Cancer Survivor, Holidays Bring New Hope

By Chelsea Smith

Don’t take life for granted. Each day you wake up is an amazing gift. Even though I’ve felt a lot of pain in my life, it’s made me stronger. I’ve always been hopeful for tomorrow, and sometimes that hope pays off.

My roller coaster started when I was 15 months old and developed a liver tumor known as hepatoblastoma. I was treated for two years at Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, with surgery by Dr. Robert Shamberger, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. I went into remission, and despite challenges, I went to elementary school, was a cheerleader, and played sports.

Chelsea Smith, pediatric cancer
Chelsea’s oldest brother, Griffin, gives her a hug at a fundraiser held for Chelsea.

Then in 2001, when I was 11, I had a seizure and had to be med-flighted to Boston Children Hospital. It turns out that part of my cancer treatment, which had helped save my life, had over time caused multiple holes in my colon and organs. Dr. Shamberger had to operate again, along with Dr. Heung Bae Kim. I was in the intensive care unit for three months, and then on a regular hospital floor for three more.

Eventually I needed more surgeries, missed all of eighth grade, and started high school with a feeding tube. It was a hard time socially, but the school faculty was very supportive and eventually I found three best friends who have been there for me ever since. I graduated with my class in 2008, but one semester into my sophomore year at Fitchburg State College, I started having severe abdominal pain. I had developed C. diff [Clostridium difficile], a bacterial disease, and discovered that my liver, which had been quite damaged by prior treatments, no longer functioning normally.

Once again my life was put on hold. Dr. Kim determined I needed a liver transplant, and I was placed on the waiting list. When a liver was found for me in August 2014 it was a bittersweet moment. I knew the risks, but wanted to start living my life again.

Chelsea joins her friend from the Jimmy Fund Clinic, Stephen, at a Boston Red Sox game.
Chelsea joins her friend from the Jimmy Fund Clinic, Stephen, at a Boston Red Sox game.

A while after my transplant, I found out my liver donor’s name and learned all I could about her. I discovered she had a signature phrase she liked to use: “Keep smiling, beautiful.” It’s become a kind of motto for me too; despite all the challenges I’ve faced, I try to stay positive. I liked it so much I even got a tattoo with it.

Like me, my family was hopeful that the transplant was going to be it – the end of the roller coaster. Then we learned I had developed hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a rare, incurable cancer caused by underlying chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. After more than 20 years in remission, having cancer again was like a slap in the face – just devastating.

Chelsea Smith, Allison O'Neill, Radio-Telethon
Chelsea (right) with her oncologist, Allison O’Neill, MD, at the 2015 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon.

My new oncologist, Dr. Allison O’Neill, and my nurse practitioner, Casey Wall, are amazing, but when the first three treatments they tried on me failed, it was hard to stay positive, but I kept focusing on how much I had to live for. I wanted to watch my nieces, two-month-old Porter Rose and one-year-old Kaylyn Chelsea, grow up. I’m the maid of honor for a friend who is getting married next September. I’m thinking about going back to school and becoming a social worker, so I can help other kids with cancer open up about their fears.

Chelsea Smith
Chelsea with her neice, Kaylyn Chelsea, at a family BBQ.

Then, a few weeks ago, I finally got the news from Dr. O’Neill that I was waiting for. My latest medicine was not only working, but could be potentially shrinking my tumors! When you hear that, the weight of the world is lifted off your shoulders and it’s like coming up for a breath of fresh air. Seeing my parents’ faces light up like a Christmas tree was more than anything I could ask for.

It was the perfect news to receive before Thanksgiving; I can finally relax a little bit for the holidays. We didn’t think I would be here to celebrate this year, and guess what? I am here, still smiling, and still trying to kiss these tumors goodbye!

Chelsea Smith
Chelsea welcoming her new niece, Porter Rose

Watch Chelsea tell her story on the 2015 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon.