At 66 years old, Perry “Sonny” Smith is the picture of health, a vigorous man who runs, bikes and swims. You’d hardly believe that four years ago he was told he had weeks to live.

“I’m feeling great,” Smith said. “This June will mark five years since my diagnosis so it’s a big deal.”

In June 2013, Smith who is a retired professional baseball scout for the Cincinnati Reds started feeling bloated and full. After visiting his primary care doctor, the Charlotte resident was told he had constipation but despite taking medication, his condition didn’t improve.

“I didn’t have a lot of pain, but I felt stuffed even though I couldn’t eat,” Smith said. A visit with a gastroenterologist did not answer what was ailing him but Smith persisted.   Following another trip to the doctor, a CT scan revealed fluid in the lining of his stomach, a symptom of stomach cancer. A colonoscopy showed that Smith had a tumor about the size of a Nerf football in his stomach. His doctor told Smith he had two options: four week s to live without chemotherapy or four months to live with chemotherapy.

A self-described optimist, Smith chose to fight. Hours after learning of his original diagnosis, Smith’s physician Dr. Justin Favaro with Oncology Specialists of Charlotte broke more bad news: the stomach tumor had originated in his lymph nodes. Smith had a rare and aggressive cancer called Burkitt lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that develops in a patient’s immune cells.   Burkitt lymphoma is a very aggressive form of cancer caused by abnormal B lymphocytes.      

The course of chemotherapy was changed and Smith spent about six weeks in the hospital and another 7 months undergoing chemotherapy.   “I was very sick those first 40 days,” Smith said.

“We’re there for patients”

As he lay in his hospital bed wondering what was going to happen to him, Pam Gwaltney walked into his room. “Early on, I remember her coming to sit with me, asking me how she could help.”

  Gwaltney   is a cancer care nurse navigator at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. “We’re there for patients from the very beginning of the diagnosis to help them with questions they maybe hadn’t thought of and prepare them for what is next,” Gwaltney said of her role.

Gwaltney prepares patients by explaining the course of their chemotherapy or radiation regimen, and what to expect. “We are trying to make sure cancer fits into their life, and doesn’t take over their lives,” she said.

“We tell patients no question is stupid, and will spend the time reiterating things, if necessary, helping them understand their diagnosis,” she said. “We also help them navigate their insurance and their finances.”

Julie Denning is the manager of cancer care at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center

.“Novant Health’s nurse navigators are oncology nurses who dedicate their careers to cancer patients and have extra education to be experts in the field,” Denning said.

They help patients with communication and education with doctors, physical therapists and other providers and help them with their questions and concerns. There are a dozen nurse navigators at Presbyterian who provide disease-specific care at Presbyterian hospital.

Denning said of the 2,700 cancer cases the hospital sees each year about 65 percent of those patients have nurse navigators. The goal is to reach 100 percent of those patients.    

An intense battle

Smith had little chance to prepare mentally or physically for battling cancer. “Perry came to the ICU and started chemo right away,” said Gwaltney. “That is very scary.”

In addition, Smith’s treatment was extra intense. Gwaltney took time just sitting with Smith and getting to know him. “Nurse navigators have to assess every situation and know when to ask questions and when to just be there for support.   You have to know when to wait,” she said. “As an active man, it was devastating for him to stay in the hospital so long,” she said.          

During those long weeks, Smith became attached to Gwaltney and the other oncology nurses on the 7 th and 3 rd floor of the hospital. “They went beyond the call of duty for me,” he said. “They held my hand during a scary procedure. I will never forget them.”

And the feeling is mutual.   “Patients are family,” Gwaltney said. “It’s so satisfying to do something in a patient’s life and make a difference in their cancer treatment.”

Today, the tumor is gone and his blood counts are normal. “I am back to doing everything I was doing before the cancer,” Smith said. But he also admits that the experience has made him more grounded about what is important in life. He gives back through his involvement with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. He also passes along his baseball wisdom with lessons and will coach middle school this spring.

And he hasn’t forgotten the attention and care received from the oncology nurses. Every few months, he makes a surprise visit to these friends with goodies like cookies, desserts and candy bags.