INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – A local Marine says he is surviving because of three things in his life — faith, fitness and fight.
I-Team 8 investigated why the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs were not notifying veterans like Col. Mark Smith that they should be screened for lung cancer after exposure to oil field fire in the Gulf War. Since then, Smith has been fighting cancer and shared with I-Team 8 his new fight.
Smith is an Indiana State trooper and a USMC colonel. He trained thousands of Marines at Camp Pendleton, deploying to the first Gulf War and then Iraq. The enemy nicknamed the battalion “The Mad Ghosts.”
Now diagnosed at stage 3b lung cancer, the Marine Battle book is replaced by Smith’s Cancer Book. It’s a book full of appointments for chemotherapy and radiation.
“Now it’s game on. Now it’s the fight. That part I can understand,” Smith said.
For a year and a half, I-Team 8 documented Smith’s doctor’s appointments, radiation and chemo. In that time, we learned he fights off the normal fatigue and nausea of cancer as a Marine would — lifting weights.
“When I inhale I say, ‘Trust in Jesus and when I exhale I say (expletive) cancer,” Smith said.
His new weapons: swimming, the elliptical and boxing. As he fiercely hits the bag he visualizes.
“I feel like I’m crushing cancer cells,” he said.
His battlefield is now his basement, where he’s surrounded by a shrine to his fallen Marines. They offer silent support. He gets emotional as he explains.
“It’s like you are protected by the guys you failed,” Smith said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
Nearly a year into battling cancer, in March Smith ran 35 stories of stairs of the One America building for the Lung Association. He climbed it three times.
“As I started meeting the other patients that aren’t as blessed as I am and who couldn’t PT if they had to because of their condition, it became a prayer technique, he said. “So I do it for them as much as I do it for me.”
A devout Catholic, one strength never leaves him, even in radiation. During treatment he hold in his hand “A Miraculous Medal of Mary” from his daughters confirmation.
“She passed it on to me for my treatments,” Smith said.
“Every day we would make the sign of the cross on his chest and we were supposed to do a hail Mary,” his daughter said.
Lifting his shirt to show the area where the lung cancer is, he says, “I have always kept Christ and the Holy Spirit in my heart here and I have the Mad Ghosts (tattoo) here on the flank, so we will have a nice little battle here in the middle of my chest.”
He also finds battle strength at St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
“I choose instead of to take my lunch hour for lunch, I come to mass,” he said, walking in.
On this day in September 2013, going inside had even more meaning. The cancer was back. He was schedule to have part of his lung removed in two days.
“I know what I’ve seen. I know who has carried me through all of this,” Smith said, tearing up. “I owe him nothing less than my life. So I come to give thanks more than anything.”
Surgery is not typically performed on late stage lung cancer patients. Smith’s surgery is at IU Health Simon Cancer Center, a community of caretakers who in part believe his daily exercise made the difference.
“Certainly that he is in pretty good health puts him in a position to potentially benefit from some risky treatments such as surgery,” Thoracic surgeon Dr. Thomas Birdas said.
Smith said everyone expects Marines to be fighters.
“This is my 30 minutes where I feel like I’m fighting back,” he said.
With his arms outstretched he says, “I always try to finish (my workout) with crucifixes. It’s a good reminder. We say in the Corps — pain is good.”
Every day he is battling cancer with faith, fitness and fight.
Smith said having cancer has brought blessings into his life. To pass that on, he has set up at Franciscan St. Francis Health the Colonel Mark A. Smith patient assistance fund to raise money for those fighting cancer. The fund offers financial assistance for everyday expenses not covered by insurance such as medications, transportation, groceries, rent and utilities. By easing this burden, patients and their families can focus on healing.
In March he will do the stair climb again — this time 47 stories. He plans to go up again not just once, but three times.