Daughter’s advice is worth taking to heart during cancer fight

Not everyone can say he makes a living being a pain in the neck.

But that’s me. Four days a week, and sometimes more, for the past 23 years I’ve done my best to live up to H.L. Mencken’s credo that a reporter’s only real job is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

That’s nearly 5,000 columns in all. To that I’ve added a dozen books and contributed to that many more, have an armload of manuscripts floating in various stages of completion, and have produced hundreds of other articles, short stories and poems on a wide variety of themes.

What can I say? I love the people of Las Vegas, the great Nevada landscape and the countless characters I’ve met.

Writing a column for the Review-Journal has been one of the great challenges of my writing life, and one of its greatest pleasures. I’ve swung and missed plenty of times, but I’ve taken an honest swing.

And I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic. Colds, flu or snow piled high outside our home on Mount Charleston didn’t matter. Even during my daughter Amelia’s incredible battle with brain cancer, I managed to keep you updated on her progress. That girl is always on my mind.

Lately, I haven’t been in the newspaper much. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I sure have.

For a guy like me, few things in life are more fun than a hot news deadline and an even hotter story. Of course, I’m just as much in my element if I can turn a phrase and make myself laugh, or weep, on the typewriter keys. I do that, you know. In my cramped office loaded with books and documents and Styrofoam coffee cups that sprout like mushrooms, I catch myself tearing up like a soap opera addict or cackling at an inside joke.

This time nature’s joke is on me, and its punch line has me floored. Some months ago, I noticed a twinge of pain in my throat, the sort of thing I’d always associated with a touch of tonsillitis. When it didn’t subside after a little gargling, a doctor prescribed an antibiotic. A short time later, I saw a swelling in my neck. I immediately returned to my primary physician, who recommended a local ear, nose and throat expert.

A bank of tests revealed squamous cell carcinoma in the neck and throat, and I underwent a three-hour surgery to remove an offending cyst. It’s the kind of cancer usually associated with heavy cigarette smoking.

I don’t smoke, but our family knows plenty about cancer’s malevolent and fickle nature. Amelia was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 8. Her fight for survival became the fight of our family’s life.

For my fight, I sought a second opinion at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and learned that radiation and chemotherapy would have a better chance of succeeding if the primary cancer site was located and removed. I decided I had to try.

During seven hours of surgery on Friday, Aug. 5, doctors at Mayo removed the primary cancer and the lymph nodes on the left side of my neck. They said it was successful.

The scar runs about a quarter of the way around my neck, which in my twisted mind makes it a good source of self-inflicted humor. Still groggy from anesthesia, I peered into the hospital room mirror at the incision line and thought, “Looks like John Smith’s head is 25 percent off.”

Truth is, there are times I’m very afraid. But my cancer-fighting daughter reminds me to, “Live for today and believe in tomorrow.” As a young child, she once cracked, “You get what you get and you don’t cry a fit.” With sage advice like that and a loving circle of family and friends, I can’t lose.

In fact, I’m already a bit ahead of the game. Local periodontist Mark Ferrari, in a marathon session between my surgeries, has prepared my gums and teeth to survive the eventual radiation.

So if you want to hear someone lamenting the fates, try Ann Landers. After everything my Amelia has been through, how can I complain about anything?

Still, I do need to focus on getting better, more comfortable and cancer-free. That means temporarily changing my schedule. You’ll hear from me when the precious commodities of time, health and energy permit.

I’ll get what I get and try not to cry a fit, and I will keep you posted on my progress.

John L. Smith can be reached by email at Smith@reviewjournal.com.

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