One Girl's Story

Regular readers of the Review-Journal know John L. Smith. And, if they know Smith, they have become acquainted with his daughter, Amelia, who has made numerous appearances in her dad's columns during the past 13 years.

Readers experienced the day Smith and his wife, Patricia, welcomed Amelia into their family and shared, vicariously, such child/parent milestones as Amelia's first day of school.

But, during the past five years, readers also witnessed the most daunting challenge the Smiths have faced: Amelia's battle with cancer.

Fortunately, that's a story with a happy ending. And, now, in "Amelia's Long Journey: Stories About a Brave Girl and Her Fight Against Cancer" ($14.95; Stephens Press, which is a sister company of the Review-Journal), Smith and his daughter recall Amelia's medical struggles via Smith's columns and previously unpublished family photos.

The book -- all proceeds from its sale are going to several Southern Nevada children's cancer charities -- grew out of a request Amelia had of her dad.

"I said to my dad for Christmas one year that I wanted him to put all of his columns into book form, and he did," says Amelia, now 13. "Then I was reading through the book, and said, 'Dad, we should write a book they could sell.' "

Dad thought it was a good idea. And, for Amelia, reading the columns chronologically was, she says, "just like a completely different story, which is really cool."

In fact, while Smith wrote the columns as products of daily journalism, they do, read sequentially, create the effect of a nonfiction novel. That surprised Smith.

When writing about Amelia, "I kept getting caught up in the moment," he explains, "like the excitement of being able to bring home Amelia as a newborn and the kind of overwhelming fun that it is to have a kid in the house."

But the diagnosis of cancer when Amelia was 8 gave the columns, and Amelia's story, a whole new arc.

"My wife, myself, Amelia, we were all overwhelmed," Smith recalls, and "the intensity was just crushing."

Deciding whether to write about Amelia's cancer battle -- and, then, deciding how much of it to share -- was difficult.

"(R-J Editor) Tom Mitchell and I had long discussions about whether I should write about it," Smith says. "He wanted me to make the call."

Going in, Smith continues, "I knew that, whatever, it was going to be personal, and it could be very painful. And although we write about it as a story with a happy ending, when I was writing about it I had no idea it was going to turn out well -- in fact, quite the opposite."

Smith also knew that "I didn't want to write stories that were victim-based. I didn't want Amelia to feel like a victim, I didn't want anybody to think that my family was a victim. It just wasn't a message I wanted to send. It's not who we are as people. We're just, kind of, stronger than that, and Amelia, she's never been, 'Oh, woe is me.'

"We have our up and down days, but she's really strong when it comes to moving forward with her life and doing great things, whether she's standing or sitting (in a wheelchair)."

Amelia had no qualms about her dad chronicling her experiences.

"I feel good with him about the writing," she says. "But it's the same thing: I didn't want him to make it too much of a big deal."

Was it cathartic for Smith to write about Amelia's medical battle or to receive feedback about the columns?

"I think the feedback was cathartic," Smith says, "I don't know if the writing was."

But it turned out the Smiths' literary collaboration has been cathartic for others. People who also have battled, or are battling, cancer have told her father "that I kind of encouraged them to keep going," Amelia says. "It helped me to be stronger, to know I was helping myself and other people."

That continues today, at book signings and wherever else somebody recognizes Amelia. During one event, Amelia recalls, a woman "came up to me and said she knew me from my dad's columns, and that his columns (about Amelia's chemotherapy) inspired her to keep the chemo going, where she was ready to tell the doctor to stop the chemotherapy."

Smith concedes that, sometimes, albeit rarely, people can overshare.

"We're really gratified that Amelia's story has helped people, but when you get people who start talking about their surgery or showing their scars ... " he explains, trailing off with a laugh. "It's like, OK, at some point, let's remember you're talking to a child and her idiot dad, so don't get too crazy."

"But, no, for the most part, people are really sensitive. I think she has helped people and they want to acknowledge that, and they do.

"Let me tell you: Every single day we're out in public, someone comes up to Amelia and says: 'I've been reading about you. Thank you for your story helping me through this.' "

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review or 702-383-0280.


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