Friday, May 19, 2017 | 10:18 a.m.
Family is very important to Johnny Smith. Like many men his age, he traveled and made sacrifices for the good of his family. Working as a field hand in Texas, he sought a better life and found work as a welder, eventually moved to Las Vegas, where he and his family have lived for the past 30 years.
In 2000, he received news that would shake his world and his family to its foundation. He had no symptoms, but after a prostate check, it was discovered that his white blood count was off. “That’s what got things started. When I told the doctor about my family’s health history, he ordered other tests . . . and I had to drink that stuff!”
The Smith family health history presented many warning signs — Johnny’s father died of stomach cancer, his mother of throat cancer, a brother he lost to lung cancer and a sister to colon cancer.
“I went to the exam. And they did a colonoscopy and found a 3-centimeter mass,” he said. “Then they eventually did the surgery. Dr. Phillip Manno of the Nevada Cancer Institute — he was my oncologist — a wonderful doctor.”
The news of his diagnosis, however, was traumatic to his family — wife Lillie, two sons Corey and Johnny Jr. (“JR”) and daughter Natalie — as were moments during his recovery. “They were very afraid. They thought perhaps I would pass away. JR and Natalie had never met their grandmother, as she had passed away, as did my brother. They never had a chance to meet some relatives, but they learned their history.”
“It was very nerve-wracking for everyone,” Johnny said. “I had pre-planned my funeral — out of respect for my family — to protect them financially. But when they found that out, it made them very nervous. At the same time, I was being positive and strong for my family. I did not want to show fear. If I showed fear, it would make them more upset.”
“Everything to sustain me was through the IV.
I couldn’t eat. I had chemo for almost two years. It makes you so sick. Four hours, multiple times a week. I had children in school. My wife was working. Our insurance was exhausted. We were struggling with bills and house payments. Everything was a struggle.”
Eventually, Johnny and his family were able to emerge from the shadow that was cast over them. But it did change their lifestyle.
His daughter Natalie has followed in her father’s healthy footsteps. “Yes, as an adult,” she conceded. “As a child, I did not . . . well, because I was a kid. I was just in survival mode as a kid. Then I became more involved in my own life, health-wise, to help prevent cancer.”
Johnny himself made changes to his life. “How I eat, how I think, my mental state — I don’t like negative people,” he said. He notes, however, that changing eating habits can be a challenge.
While he still has some favorites — catfish and fried green tomatoes, buttermilk chicken maybe once every few months — he has drastically cut down on fatty foods and eats more fruits and vegetables. “People like to eat and people like good food. Soul food doesn’t always have to be full of lard, grease and unhealthy things. I’ve been learning to make soul food healthy. People need to educate themselves about what to eat and make healthy choices. Some people, if you offer them baked chicken instead of fried, it’s almost offensive!”
After his diagnosis and surgery, Johnny had a colonoscopy once a year, and most recently, this has been scaled back to every five years.
“If it had kept spreading, then who knows the direction it would take?” Johnny said. “I believe that God left me here so that people could hear this story, hear and understand the importance of colon cancer screening. It’s very simple. You have a choice to make. You can ‘not go and not know,’ only to later be diagnosed with cancer that has already spread — and then it is too late. Chemo, radiation — it may not be enough. Early detection is the key to life. That is my message. ”