Editor's note: Unedited b-roll of Smith sharing his story is available for media. Download 720p version here. Download the SD version here. Click the "Download story package" icon to download photos.
At 64 years old, Perry “Sonny” Smith is the picture of health, a vigorous man who runs, bikes and swims. You’d hardly believe that two years ago he was told he had weeks to live.
In June 2013, Smith 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,” said Smith, who travels often as a professional baseball scout for the Cincinnati Reds. 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, he was told.
A subsequent 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 weeks to live without chemotherapy or four months to live with chemotherapy.
A self-described optimist, Smith chose to battle his cancer. Hours after learning of his original diagnosis, Smith’s physician, Dr. Justin Favaro of 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’s lymphoma that develops in a patient’s immune cells.
The course of chemotherapy was changed and Smith spent 40 days in the hospital and another seven months undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Watch as Sonny tells his story.
“I was very sick those first 40 days,” Smith said. “Early on, I remember Pam coming to sit with me, asking me how she could help.”
Pam is Pam Gwaltney, 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.
As an oncology nurse, Gwaltney helps 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 added. “We also help them navigate their insurance and their finances.”
Smith didn’t really have a chance to prepare mentally or physically for his life battling cancer. “Perry came to the ICU and started chemo right away,” Gwaltney said. “That is very scary.”
In addition, Smith’s treatment was very intense, according to the nurse. Initially, they just talked generalities, spoke of his interests, family and background instead of his diagnosis. “Nurse navigators have to assess every situation to see what’s appropriate, when to ask questions and when to just be there for support,” Gwaltney said. “You have to know when to wait.”
She took the time to just sit with Smith. “As an active man, it was devastating for him to stay in the hospital so long,” Gwaltney said.
During the course of treatment, Smith became attached to the nurse navigator and the other oncology nurses on the 7th and 3rd floors 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 was clearly mutual.
“Patients are family,” Gwaltney said. “It’s so satisfying to do something in patients lives and make a difference in their cancer treatment.”
Today, Smith is back at his active lifestyle. The tumor is gone and his blood counts are normal. He is heading into his third year of completing his therapy without a recurrence and looks forward to one day being completely clear of cancer.
Though he may be better, he hasn’t forgotten the attention and care received from the oncology nurses at the hospital. Every few months, he makes a surprise visit to these friends with goodies like cookies, desserts and candy bags – his way of showing thanks.
Photos: A journey through cancer
Perry "Sonny" Smith hugs Pam Gwaltney, a cancer care nurse navigator at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.