At age 51, Mike Smith was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). He had undergone several tests, but “they still weren’t sure what it was,” he told MyLungCancerTeam.
After a positron emission tomography (PET) scan — a type of imaging that can be used to diagnose lung cancer — Smith received the tough news. “I took the call at home and I just continued working,” Smith said. His biggest concern was telling his three children — ages 6, 8, and 10 at the time — of his diagnosis.
Later that evening, before Smith and his wife had shared the news of his diagnosis with their children, the doorbell rang. A neighbor had learned of the diagnosis from Smith’s wife and sent over a pizza for the family.
“Why are they sending us a pizza?” Smith’s children asked.
“We took that as an opportunity to tell them. We sat down and huddled together and told the kids,” Smith said.
That evening, Smith told his children, “Grab your sleeping bags and pillows and we’ll all sleep together, and I’m going to wake up in the morning.”
September 2021 marked the five-year anniversary of Smith’s diagnosis. “I’ve been very fortunate now that I’ve been a five-year survivor,” Smith said. “At the time of my diagnosis, I was told five-year survival was 19, 20 percent.”
However, Smith noted that for people with stage 4, the survival rate is much lower. According to a 2021 report from the American Lung Association, the five-year survival rate for advanced stage lung cancer is 6 percent. Overall for lung cancer, the five-year survival rate — the percentage of people still alive after a diagnosis or starting treatment — is 23.7 percent.
“I’m going to be that guy that’s gonna make it five years,” Smith remembered thinking early in his diagnosis. “I did it one step at a time.”
Over the past five years, Smith has undergone several therapies to treat his lung cancer. He has been treated with three targeted therapies, including one through a clinical trial. He’s also undergone radiation for metastasis in his brain and vertebrae. In 2017, following radiation on his brain, Smith developed swelling and had to undergo brain surgery. “Since then I’ve had a roller-coaster ride of different treatments,” Smith said. In early 2021, he had a tumor ablation — a needle-based treatment to destroy cancerous tissue — on two vertebrae.
Lung cancer affects Smith every day. He explained how pain from cancer interrupts his sleep. Even so, Smith does his best to keep up a regular life. “We try to be as normal as we can. I work, I coach my son’s football team, I taught my oldest daughter to drive,” he said.
“I still feel good,” Smith commented. “I still go to the Y to work out. I think it’s very important for lung cancer patients to be physically active.”
In the midst of treatment, Smith has become an advocate in the lung cancer community. Today, Smith is involved with several lung cancer organizations, including the American Lung Association, the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, LUNGevity, and EGFR Resisters. He also volunteers with his church. “I’m on track to have 500 volunteer hours this year,” Smith told MyLungCancerTeam in late 2021, “Four hundred and fifty of those hours is something related to lung cancer.”
The springboard was a local cancer group that met once a month near his home in South Carolina. As part of his involvement with his local organization, Smith was nominated to be part of a research program where he reviewed research proposals. “I went from being a patient advocate to having knowledge about being a patient research advocate and understanding the importance of research,” Smith explained.
One of Smith’s other passions is mentoring people with lung cancer about their financial options. He wants others to understand the complicated details of life insurance and other resources that can help people manage the costs associated with cancer treatment or being unable to work due to lung cancer.
“I’m just hoping I can continue fighting and thriving and surviving,” Smith said. “I’m fighting this cancer war on all fronts.”
Smith hopes that advances in treatment and survival in other cancers, such as breast cancer, will help pave the way for even more advancements in lung cancer. “We’re all one team — you could say it’s one team for cancer,” he said. “Some of the existing drugs are now in trials for another form of cancer. It’s about sharing and collaboration.”
“There’s a lot of hope out there based on new technology,” Smith said. “Someday the narrative is going to change from a deadly disease to a chronic disease to a cure.”