EDITOR’S NOTE: This past fall, SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith announced via an espnW essay and social media that she was battling breast cancer. Throughout her journey, Smith has been good enough to share some of the experiences with Front Row. Today, CANCER FREE, and coinciding with the release of “Triumphant,” the short documentary above, Smith again offers Front Row a glimpse into 15 months of tears and triumph.
When the guys from InfiniteLimits Media Group out of Seattle (James Naranjo, Che Davis, Aaron Williams and Steve Arcenio) called me last month and asked if they could tell my story, I was immediately flattered and honored. They explained it was all pro-bono work and that they wanted to volunteer their time and efforts just to make a little film on my battle with breast cancer and I was really touched. But then, as we talked, we realized we could, perhaps, do something really amazing with my upcoming post-treatment mammogram — to be done using a new a 3D technology machine — actually document proof positive that I was cancer free and show how it all works.
Colleen Farrell, the PR manager at Torrance Memorial Hospital signed off on letting us shoot almost immediately and gave us access to Dr. Patricia Sacks at the breast diagnostic center. Dr. Sacks helped organize the first breast center at Torrance Memorial in 1992 and did a residency at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Anything with Einstein — I figured I was in good hands!
But we had to mobilize quickly. The date was less than a week away. Because the guys were doing this on their own dime “for a chance to tell an important and compelling story,” Naranjo and Davis told me, I got out my blow-up beds, bought a bunch of cold cuts and burgers and, well, OK, some beer, and prepared for two days of shooting, which also turned into two days of fun. Who wouldn’t want four young, ambitious, handsome and smart men staying at their house?? OK, twist my arm.
Arcenio was the master behind the camera, Davis directed and Naranjo was audio/PR/mixologist. I just had to be me. They followed me everywhere from when I woke up, to my great gym, Heyday Elite Fitness, to the ESPN office in downtown Los Angeles, to a porch BBQ late at night.
They interviewed my friends at the gym, my friends in my life and my daughter, Dylann Tharp, who wouldn’t let me watch her interview, but who was so amazing and I now know why she didn’t want me sitting in on her session: We both would have been sobbing. She so expertly articulated what this experience was like for both of us. I know it was harder on her than me, and I also know I wouldn’t have been as strong without her.
Then suddenly it was the next morning — the morning of the mammogram. I was edgy and anxious. I had been told I was cancer free, but this would prove it – in 3D no less – or in the worse-case scenario, that I still had a battle on my hands.
I agreed to let the crew shoot the mammogram and the ultrasound because I wanted to show that what little pain there is lasts for about 30 seconds, and showcase the new technology, which, as Dr. Sacks explains, is able to slice through the image to better see what’s going on.
So off we went. The procedure lasted less than 10 minutes and then we were looking at images. You’ll see a big black hole on one of them — and that’s exactly what it is – where the tumor had been and is now filled with fluid. You’ll also see that same area in white on Dr. Sacks’ machine. That, again, is where the tumor was.
Waiting, as I said in the beginning of the piece, is the hardest time. Even if it us just five minutes. I hope doctors and imaging centers are reading and listening. Please help your patient by getting the results as soon as humanly possible. It makes a huge difference. Even if it’s bad news. Not knowing is absolutely agony.
But when Dr. Sacks said to me five minutes later, “I don’t see anything bad,” my wait was over. I felt a huge sense of relief. There it was right in front of me: nothing. Nothing bad. Proof positive: I am cancer free!
The guys worked their magic in the edit room over four days of nothing but. Their professionalism and skill, I believe, really show in the finished product. What doesn’t is their hearts – that they would do this with their own money and time because they believe not just in me, but the cause, says so much about all of them. Their chief of client relations, Aaron Williams, joined us eventually and we all talked long into the nights about their love of film-making and their dreams. I know this could help them and that makes me very happy and proud — as happy and proud as I am to further educate the public on this procedure. With that kind of initiative and all the effort – not to mention they showed up in suits and ties – they will go far.
I will continue to have periodic testing, including an MRI, blood work and another mammogram in four months. It’s more important than ever that I stay vigilant in maintaining the appointments, even as my work schedule is likely to increase as football begins.
It’s been 15 months since I heard the words, “we found cancer.” It wasn’t a pleasant journey, to be sure, but if, along the way, I helped even one person find his or her own strength, it was worth it. If I led even one person to get a mammogram, it was worth it. What I learned is that people really can help people. I plan on continuing to do that, just now, I do it cancer free. Proof positive!
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