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Landen Smith awoke one February morning in 2020 with a sore left arm. He first felt the pain during a junior varsity basketball game for McQueen High the day prior. Thinking it was nothing more than bumps and bruises, he tried to sleep it off knowing the next day he was scheduled to play golf with his dad. But the bread was too much to bear.

“He woke up and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I can play. My shoulder really hurts,'” Smith’s mother, Debbie recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, let me take a look at it.’ We looked and there was visible swelling on the shoulder.”

With a mother’s intuition that something wasn’t right, she took her son to the hospital. Initially doctors suggested Smith’s pain was due to over usage, but Debbie knew something was wrong. Her son felt a similar pain a year earlier, the diagnosis being the same. Overused. But Debbie knew better. She pressed for more information, more tests. Medical staff suggested cysts. But with more tests, came more answers.

At age 15, Smith was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that occurs in the bone or soft tissue around the bone. Commonly found in teens, Ewing’s sarcoma accounts for less than 1 percent of childhood cancers, around 225 people being diagnosed with it in the United States each year.

“I was shell-shocked,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was real, honestly. I took it and I just kind of rolled with it. But there was one night I just laid in my room and that’s when it really hit.”

Added Debbie: “You never want to think that it’s your child. You never want to be put in that position. No one can prepare for a pediatric cancer diagnosis.”

But Smith was determined to beat the cancer, in part because he wanted to return to sports, something he had loved since childhood. With his trademark positive spirit and determination, Smith’s journey would begin. Over 34 weeks, Smith endured 28 radiation treatments, 17 chemo treatments and five surgeries at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno. And as painful as those experiences were, seeing his family impacted by his battle equally wounded Smith.

“It was weird seeing them sad,” Smith said of his parents and two older brothers. “I’ve seen them sad before, but it’s not an often occurrence. I try to goof off around with them, try to make them happy.”

But the Smith family wanted to make sure their youngest son knew it was OK to be sad. That was a natural feeling, although they didn’t want to show too much emotion during their son’s cancer battle.

“It’s okay to cry” Debbie said. “It’s okay to be sad. We cried a lot in the car. Just so Landen wouldn’t necessarily see us break down because he didn’t really break down. But it’s okay to have those moments because I think you need those moments as well.”

Smith was paired with Dr. Jacob Zucker, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist from Renown’s Children’s Hospital known for his patient and caring touch. Zucker immediately knew Smith was a fighter, somebody who wasn’t going to stop living his life because of his exceptionally bad luck.

“Landen’s response was different than the rest of us,” Zucker said. “Our view was this is a lot of work and we have to overcome it. Landen was the type of the guy that basically said, ‘Okay, when do we start.’ He had no concern or fear of what the work was going to entail as far as getting over his cancer. He’s exceptionally resilient, has the most positive attitude, takes the world on full force and really accomplishes everything he needs to.”

The Smith family fought to find silver linings in the diagnosis, to keep an upbeat mentality. That’s how their son was going to approach his battle against cancer, so they would do the same.

“Every single time we left the hospital after a chemo treatment, the first thing he did when we got in the car was to sync up his phone and we’d crank up the music and have a dance party in my car,” Debbie said with a smile.

Smith focused on what he could control. He clung to the landmark moments of being a teenager. He got his driver’s license, hung out with friends, received academic honors and focused on getting healthy and returning to the basketball court and the golf course. Being a member of the McQueen basketball team was always a goal, and Smith wasn’t going to let cancer distinguish that ambition.

“He came to us out of the blue in the summer once he felt a little bit stronger and said, ‘Mom, I want to go to open gym,'” Smith said. “And we were elated. We’re, like, ‘Go for it!’”

That came in summer 2020, with Smith’s recovering trending up. And on Dec. 29, 2020, Smith had beaten the cancer, which was no longer in his body. He requires checkups throughout the year and didn’t regain full mobility in his left arm until July 2021, but is back to life as normal, or as normal as it can be. And a big part of that was making the McQueen varsity basketball team this season.

“I just love the sport, and I just really wanted to feel normal again,” Smith said. “Dr. Zucker said, ‘You’ll never really get back to being normal. You’ll get as close as possible.’ But I feel like I’m pretty normal now.”

Rick Stevens, who was Smith’s youth basketball coach, has had front-row seat to witnessing Smith’s journey. And to see the senior back out on the court for the Lancers brings emotion to everyone who knows what he has been through.

“Just seeing Landen back out there and seeing the things he’s been able to accomplish this year, coming back from that and then not just being a guy on the bench but having success out there and being somebody they count on just makes the story even sweeter ,” Stevens said.

Smith has been a source of pride and perspective to other students at McQueen who understand that life is not a given and to cherish every day, a lesson taught to them by Smith.

“I’ve learned to always stay positive,” longtime friend and classmate Drew Wilson said. “To have a positive outlook and do what you can to make the most of every situation because that’s what he did. He was going through one of the hardest things you could ever go through, and he was taking it better than even I was.”

Smith was named a Northern 5A All-Region honorable mention in basketball and this week made the Lancers’ golf team. He’s maintained that “goof ball” status that has endeared him to his friends and family. He just wants to make others smile.

“He cares more about others than himself,” his mother said. “He cares about other people being successful. It’s a source of pride for him, to help other people achieve their goals. And he’s a really good friend.”

Added his father, Craig: “He’s our pride and joy.”

Knowing first half the pain associated with a son who gets cancer, the Smiths have become advocates for pediatric cancer, partnering with The Little Warriors Foundation and Northern NV Children’s Cancer Foundation (NNCCF).

“Cancer research for children is very underfunded,” Craig said. “It’s something we can do better. And, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of money in the cure for children’s cancer, especially for 200 cases a year. The treatment that Landen was on would have been the exact same treatment that if I had Ewing’s sarcoma at his age, and there’s better treatments out there. They just need to be found. Debbie and I have really done our best to support the finding of a cure, and not just for Ewing sarcoma, but for other pediatric cancers.”

The Smiths are thankful their son is healthy again, and thankful he will be able to experience the same great things about life they have. In the fall, Smith is expected to enroll at the University of Nevada and wants to become an activist for childhood cancer research.

“What we hope for him is he’s able to continue down his path and be successful and be joyful and experience life,” Debbie said. “All these kids deserve a future. They deserve to be adults and fall in love and feel all the things that we got to do. That’s what I want for him.”

Added Laden: “I think it’s scary, but you’ve just got to keep pushing and you’ve got to stay brave. And the support from others really helps if you can be there for that person, for your loved one if they’re going through it. That’s more than enough.”


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