Behind The Scenes

Hawaii assignment a double win for Shelley Smith

Shelley Smith. (Photo courtesy John Mattera)
Touchdown Shelley! Smith returns to ESPN, reporting from Hawaii, where she will chronicle Marcus Mariota’s NFL Draft experience. (Photo courtesy John Mattera)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This past fall, SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith announced via an espnW essay and social media that she is battling breast cancer. Smith also interviewed former SportsCenter anchor and current Good Morning America host Robin Roberts about the fight against cancer and penned this post for Front Row. Smith and her daughter, Dylann, 28, recently shared what the past four months have been like for them. Today, as she returns to work – covering Marcus Mariota from Hawaii for SportsCenter’s NFL Draft coverage, Smith updates fans on her progress and, quite proudly, her new (no) hairdo.

I also was told by my oncologist that going on the air without hair would empower so many women going through the same thing. That sold me.

Ready or not, bald I come!

It was a year ago almost exactly when my doctor called with the news that they found cancer in my left breast and lymph nodes. He also breathlessly broke in and asked “Hey, what pick did the Lakers get?” – it was the draft lottery that day – and I told him I was a LITTLE PREOCCUPIED. Seriously I could be bleeding to death and he’d still first ask something about Kobe’s Achilles. That’s the perils of being in sports, I guess.

The cancer news was a shock, to be sure. And really scary. But I’ve been through six months of arimidex (estrogen inhibitor) which minimized the tumors, a lumpectomy and lymph node excision, and four rounds of chemo, three neulasta shots (two bouts of the flu and three infections but who’s counting?). But now I’m back! For a minute anyway until 25 days of radiation beginning May 11. (They say it’s like getting a horrible sunburn and being exhausted – think spring break in college!)

And, so for now, I’m bald!

Losing my hair wasn’t traumatic or even sad because a friend told me it just means the chemo is working. And I took that to heart. I also was told by my oncologist that going on the air without hair would empower so many women going through the same thing. That sold me. (He also told me to get a tattoo on my dome saying, “Made by Dr. Chan.” Man, I have funny doctors.)

Shelley Smith. (Photo courtesy John Mattera)
Smith says, “Ready or not, bald I come!”
(Photo courtesy John Mattera)

And when I started to really think about it boing bald, even after getting a wig, I thought, “Why not? Why should any of us feel the need to hide, or be embarrassed by what we’re going through?” I wear hats when my head gets cold, but basically I’m a baldy. I was initially concerned that on TV the attention would be on hairless me, and not the message I was delivering, but I think most sports fans know now what’s going on with me and if they don’t a quick Google search will let them know. I’m surely not doing it for the wrong kind of attention or pity; on the contrary I’m doing it to show that I am in a fight, fighting as hard as I can and that we should embrace others who make the same, very personal choice.

A lot of people stare because people stare at anything other than what they are. We, as a society, need to work on that. But I simply explain what I’m going through and remind them to get yearly mammograms and ultrasounds and to stand up to their insurance companies who say you don’t need them until your 60. I saw too many young women and men in the chemo infusion room. It’s important to pay attention to your body and then let science do its thing.

The support I’ve received from ESPN and people all over the country has been overwhelming and so uplifting. I was in tears all day as I watched that little stick runner on my computer as Andy Katz ran the Boston Marathon, cramps in his feet and all, with my name on his arm and his bib. He wrote to me later that when he was in pain he thought, “she fights so I must fight.” Turn on the tears again.

That same day Alex Flanagan of NBC and NFL network wrote an amazing article. Really I was a mess the entire day. And then Richard Deitsch of Sports weighed in.

I have received so many cards (I have them all in a huge book) flowers, gifts and even movie tickets. Karen Crouse of The New York Times has sent me so many books I’m almost a well-read person; Ndamukong Suh and his sister sent a Detroit Lions heart-shaped pillow (why they make a Detroit Lions heart-shaped pillow I’ll never know, but hint, hint now I want one from the Dolphins); Kenny Stills from the New Orleans Saints sent a shirt that said, “Save Second Base”; Carlos Dunlap from the Cincinnati Bengals sent a giant pink “Tackle Cancer” shirt; and the USC Sports Information Department made a video noting that even the Heisman Trophy statue is bald.

And there’s been more: The Rio Hondo soccer team and the Oregon women’s soccer team (where my daughter played) all signed cards and Oregon sent a pink jersey. After I emceed a fundraiser in Indianapolis, I was sent a pillow in the shape of the state of Indiana (again).

Friends from college (University of Nebraska) came to drive me to chemo and make me soup and listen to me moan and groan when I was in pain and couldn’t sleep. My amazing daughter, Dylann, drove to the house one morning at 6 a.m. to bring me Tamiflu when I woke with a fever. She is a constant source of inspiration herself, and never lets me get down or dehydrated!

It’s going to be a great week for Marcus Mariota to be sure, but also for me.

In short – well not really – it’s been an experience that has made me stronger and given me a better understanding of how people really can help others. Even Twitter has been a godsend – nights when I can’t sleep – I read all the posts of support and smile. Really, nobody has been mean to me since I announced Oct. 1. There’s that!

The company has been amazing, too. I didn’t have to ask whether it was OK if I went bald on the air. They called one day and asked if I wanted to do the draft and that they would welcome my shaved head. That shows me they understand what this is all about. I’m proud to be an ESPNer.

And as I get ready to go back on the air from wonderful Honolulu, I count my many blessings. One big one is that in the course of deciding on treatment for my breast cancer, my oncologist found a melanoma which he said would have killed me in two years. It was on the back of my shoulder and I doubt I would have seen it. I had it successfully removed and now get my skin checked every six months. Melanoma is a very scary cancer. Early detection is so crucial with that kind of cancer as well. It killed my good friend Bryan Burwell and my hero Dr. Jack Ramsay. It’s nothing to mess with.

It’s going to be a great week for Marcus Mariota to be sure, but also for me. I go in strong and confident that I will be even better on air than I was (or I’ll have a complete meltdown. . . tune in to see which!)

I wear no hair as a sign of strength, a sign that I am so fortunate to work for a company that cares and moreover, that I have a fight.

And at least, for once, I won’t have to worry about the wind!

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