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Lung Cancer Survivor Racing with Team Free to Breathe in PPD IRONMAN® North Carolina

  • March 29 2016

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    Lung Cancer Survivor Racing with Team Free to Breathe in PPD IRONMAN® North Carolina

    Kirk Smith is our featured survivor of the month for March. This is also the first in a series of blog posts about Kirk's journey with Team Free to Breathe in the PPD IRONMAN® North Carolina.

    It was December 26th of 2013, the day after Christmas, and my wife and I had driven back home to Athens, Ga that morning to meet with my pulmonologist to get the results from my bronchoscopy. He had seen some unusual masses in my chest during a recent scan, so the procedure was to determine what those masses were. At 3:00 that afternoon, we learned that I had lung cancer.

    I was 51, with no history of smoking, and I was a very healthy runner, triathlete and cyclist. Or at least I thought I was healthy. Over the next few weeks, I learned that I had Stage 3B lung cancer caused by a genetic mutation called ALK+ (anaplastic lymphoma kinase). This gene rearrangement constitutes about 4%–5% of all non-small cell lung cancer patients. In my case, Stage 3B meant that the cancer involved lymph nodes on the opposite side of the chest from the primary tumor, and also involved lymph nodes in the center of the chest (mediastinum). Stage 3B lung cancer is not curable and my treatment options were limited.

    After that initial diagnosis, I began taking the relatively new targeted therapy drug, crizotinib (Xalkori), a drug developed specifically to combat the ALK+ mutation. It was working for the first 4.5 months of my treatment. My tumors were shrinking. But I was also experiencing some adverse side effects that were going to prevent me from taking the medication much longer. Then in May of that year, another drug, ceritinib (Zykadia),  was approved by the FDA and I switched to that. 

    As I write this, I have been on the drug for almost two years now. My tumors have shrunk, my lymph nodes are currently clear, and I am able to race and train at a pretty high level. I don’t have the speed or capacity that I had prior to my cancer, but the fact that I am not only alive but truly “LIVING” is remarkable. And the main reason for that is the recent development of these new targeted drugs.


    That's the 5-year survival rate for Stage 3B lung cancer. A formidable number, but not insurmountable. Putting this in racing terms, I was not usually the fastest guy at a race, but I finished in the top 2-5% in a lot of races. So why not expect the same with this "race against cancer"?

    The realist in me replies by stating the obvious difference here is that living with cancer is not a race. This is real life. We like to use sports analogies because they sound good and we can relate to them, but I am not sure they always translate so well. In this so-called race against cancer, I didn't have a choice as to whether to participate or not. The starting gun was fired two and a half years ago, and, oh yeah, there really is no finish line.

    I’m not ignoring the fact that stage 3B lung cancer has a 5% survival rate over 5 years. BUT, worrying about that statistic does zero good for me - or, more importantly, anyone around me. I am not big of fan drama or self-pity, I prefer to enjoy what I can do while I am alive.

    So when Free to Breathe became a Charity Partner with Ironman® North Carolina, there seemed to be an opportunity. However, I had stopped all long-distance training since being diagnosed with cancer,  thinking that the long training hours would be a strain on my body and would challenge my already slim frame with keeping weight on. The longest races I have done since the diagnosis were a few half marathons, but I had pulled back from any long distance triathlons. Still, this opportunity with Team Free to Breathe is a chance to use the platform of Ironman® to show what the new medications are capable of, and to educate people to the fact that these new medications don’t happen without financial support for Lung Cancer research.

    Free to Breathe was able to pull some strings, and I am racing Ironman® North Carolina 70.3 in one of their charity spots. I sincerely hope that others will be motivated to sign up of the full IRONMAN® distance the same weekend and join me in this race against cancer.

    I want to me clear, this is not about “raising awareness.” We’re all aware of cancer. This is about raising money, and educating people that research makes a huge difference. Research saves lives, and it also allows cancer patients like me to live an active life.

    Lung Cancer research receives the least amount of money of the top three cancers, yet it is the biggest killer. Causing the death of more people each year than breast, prostate and colon cancer COMBINED!

    I also think its important to emphasize that this is NOT  “my story” - i’m just the vehicle for the story.

    The medication I am taking (Zykadia) is the story

    The fact that genetic mutations were discovered is the story

    The fact that researchers discovered and developed medications for these genetic mutations is the story

    The fact that that research ONLY happens if there is funding

    The fact that Free to Breathe funds that research is the story

    The fact that my cancer has not only been kept at bay, but the treatment also allows me to live a very active life, racing, competing, working—LIVING—despite the disease.

    Provided my training goes well and my health doesn’t begin to decline, my intent is to actually race the event, not just finish it. I plan to challenge myself, and I hope some of you out there will do the same.

    Learn more about the charity spots for PPD IRONMAN North Carolina here.

    Start where you are.

    Use what you have.

    Do what you can!




  1. Joshua Reid 03:14pm, 03/29/2016

    You are the most awesome dude I know boss!

  2. Judy Blizard 12:33pm, 03/31/2016

    You and Chris are both fighters and you have my prayers and support. You truly are awesome!! See you in November!

  3. jennifer joe 06:52am, 06/09/2016

    Dear Rick,I cannot describe what I feel! This is absolutely astounding and great! Thank you: thank you so much. I don’t know what to say: It’s 2016 and i’m still cancer free after some years I think I’ll have to let this fantastic news “sink in” in my brain a little: I’ll keep on thanking you again and again.It’s like Magic i am CANCER FREE I have never been more amazed and happy in my life! Contact him directly at his for your own oil.
    May GOD Bless you all! Yours truly,
    jennifer joe

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