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Triathlete Kirk Smith faced a grim diagnosis with tenacity and resolve to beat the odds.
Technically, Kirk Smith should be dead. Late in 2013, the 54-year-old triathlete from Athens, Ga., began to experience pain in the left side of his chest while running. “I just assumed it was a pulled muscle,” Smith recalls.
But one night in December, the pain was intense enough to stop Smith in his tracks. Each time he’d walk, the discomfort would disappear, so he’d run again—only to experience the pain more severely.
“My breathing was so shallow,” he says. “I walked back to my office, then drove myself to the ER.”
A chest scan revealed some abnormalities, and Smith was hospitalized for a bronchoscopy and tissue samples. The day after Christmas, Smith received his diagnosis: Stage 3B cancer, the result of a genetic mutation called ALK+, or anaplastic lymphoma kinase. The pain in his chest was from two tumors in his left lung; the cancer had also spread to multiple lymph nodes. It was not curable, and his treatment options were limited. He was told he had a 5 percent chance of survival.
Smith, a lifelong athlete, was thrust into the race of his life. Critical decisions had to be made immediately; there were tests and blood draws at every turn; health insurance forms piled up. It required more endurance than Smith had ever known. “It crossed my mind that maybe this is what I have really been training for all these years,” he says. “All those triathlons and rides and 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons … maybe they have all been about getting me in fighting shape to face this.”
Smith approached the battle with tenacity and focus. His new “coach” was oncologist Cynthia Shepherd, who immediately formed a plan and equipped her patient with newly developed drugs targeted for ALK+.
The regimen was not without its challenges—intense nausea, diarrhea and vomiting are common side effects of the medication used in treatment. But Smith and his doctor discovered that light exercise minimized those side effects, so short rides and runs became part of his treatment plan.
“There’s no doubt training helps me deal with this—both physically and emotionally,” Smith says. “I’m not as fast as I used to be—that’s reality—but I am still committed to it, enjoy it and have seen big gains.”
Smith’s most recent CT scan—about two years after beginning treatment—showed clear lymph nodes and immeasurably small lung tumors. To celebrate, he raced Ironman 70.3 North Carolina on Oct. 22 as a representative of Free to Breathe, a lung cancer research and advocacy organization.
“I had stopped all long-distance training since my diagnosis, thinking that long training hours would be a strain on my body,” he says. “Still, this opportunity with Team Free to Breathe is a chance to use the platform of Ironman to show what the new medications are capable of and to educate people that these new medications don’t happen without financial support for lung cancer research.”
Smith wants to be clear: His race is not about raising awareness of lung cancer. “We’re all aware of cancer,” he says. “This is about raising money for research. This is not my story. The medication I’m taking is the story. The fact that researchers discovered and developed medications for these genetic mutations is the story. The fact that research only happens if there is funding is the story.”
Because of these medications, Smith is beating the odds. Racing a 70.3 is his way of showing that he’s still alive and thriving.
“I choose not to settle for where I am. I want to improve in everything I do—my work, my health, my breathing, my running, my riding. I want my lungs and my heart to be stronger next month that they are this month, and even stronger the next month. I want to be challenged. … It’s the only way I can continue to improve, and it’s the way I want to live.”