It had only been a couple of years since his son learned he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had undergone emergency surgery on his neck. Although doctors said the surgery had gone well, with cancer, especially in the lymph nodes, you just don’t know. Generally, it takes about five years before doctors are comfortable that the cancer is gone, and the boy was well inside that window.
The growth on the knee, known as osteochondroma, is very rarely malignant. It also was not related to the lymphoma. However, it can be dangerous, and is certainly painful.
Thomas Smith has lived with the shadows and whispers of cancer since he was 12 years old. And although the diseases in some ways have shaped his life, he refuses to let them define him.
Next week, Thomas Smith will graduate as the most decorated swimmer in Edison High history. He plans to attend Louisiana State University on a swimming scholarship. He also qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 200-meter backstroke.
Those are the things of which he can be fairly certain. Less clear is his medical future. In the fall, Thomas Smith passed the five-year mark cancer-free. The tumor attached to the growth plate on his knee is about the size of half a golf ball, but it has grown only minimally as he nears full growth. It is technically a cancer but almost always benign. However, if the tumor turns malignant, he likely would face amputation.
Although the threat of the bone condition looms, Thomas Smith’s spirit is unassailable. Faith and belief are central to his psyche.
“Hope is more powerful than knowing the answer” is his answer when asked if he has a motto.
And with that principle, Thomas Smith has been able to deal with his diseases with remarkable serenity.
“I stay focused on what I can control,” he says. “I can’t control what happens to my knee, but I can control my words and actions. I can control my response.”
Thomas Smith has been unabashedly upbeat. And why not? So far, he has beaten back adversity – decisively.
In 2011, two weeks after learning of the bone tumor in his leg, he was part of a relay team that set a national relay record in the 13- to 14-year-old age group. Two years earlier, when he was just three months removed from the lymphoma surgery, he was part of another national record-setting relay.
His older brother, Josh, who went to UC Santa Barbara on a swimming scholarship, calls his brother the “humble beast.” Josh Smith, who was in Cannes, France, on a college film project, talked about Thomas via email.
“When cancer came along, he merely saw it as a hurdle and not so much as a wall. At home, it was never a topic of conversation because he never wanted the spotlight to be on him,” Josh Smith wrote. “The only reason he mentions about his cancer is because he sees it as a way to inspire and encourage others. That is what I call a ‘humble beast.’”
Whether the disease retreats or advances, Thomas Smith says he will be grateful. Remission will allow him to continue to chase his Olympic and collegiate dreams.
Thomas Smith said he has a realistic shot to make it into the finals in the 200 backstroke and he is close to qualifying to the trials in the 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle.
However, if tragedy strikes and Smith loses the leg, he says, “I will still say ‘thank you’ because I have one leg.”
Brad Smith says that in addition to heartache and worry, the ordeal has given his son something good: perspective. “It’s allowed him to realize there’s a lot of other things in life – it’s not just swimming.”
Brad Smith remembers his son’s reaction at a meet in which disabled athletes also were competing.
“He said, ‘I leave my water bottle at the blocks – they leave their limbs.” Brad Smith said. “I think he realized, ‘Wow, that could be me.’”
Thomas Smith also remembers the race well.
“It was something that challenged me,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I had one leg would I have that true grit to set goals?’”
In his senior season, Thomas Smith cut back on his competitive club swimming schedule while he recovered from a couple of persistent injuries to his elbow and neck. He still managed to garner Swimmer of the Meet honors at the Sunset League Championships, where he broke the league record in the 200 individual medley and won the 100 backstroke.
According to his father, Thomas Smith is the only swimmer to have held at least one Southern California swim record at every age level. He won 15 of a possible 16 individual and relay high school league titles and holds six school and five league records, many once held by his brother.
Despite his medical issues, his father said 42 schools offered scholarships.
However, Thomas Smith said his senior season wasn’t about personal accolades or college prospects.
“My senior season was all about elevating others,” he said.
As an example, Thomas Smith points to his friend, senior Garrett Wasserman, who qualified for his first CIF meet this year.
“I encouraged him in practice and dual meets to chip away (at his time) and say, ‘Why not me?’” Thomas Smith said.
Although he has received local, regional and national attention for his exploits as a cancer survivor and swimming star, it is a lesser-known achievement of which he’s most proud.
Outside of the Edison community, few know that he is the inventor of the Totally Tuesday Tongue Twisters with Thomas, which have become anticipated although barely pronounceable codas to his weekly delivery of morning announcements.
How popular? Demand was so high to hear his twisters that the biweekly announcements were increased to a weekly supplement, according to Assistant Principal John Elliott.
“I wanted to add a fun spin that would make people tune in instead of tune out,” said Thomas Smith, who creates his own torturous ticklers.
He will be one of two student speakers at the Edison graduation and plans to go out with a particularly devilish larynx buster.
As Smith puts it, “That’s the legacy I’d like to leave with.”