Reached by phone at the start of this week, Ryan Smith expressed hope for the future. Eight months out from a successful stem cell transplant, Smith spoke of how he built his body back up since a battle with acute myeloid leukemia brought him on the doorstep of death around this time a year ago.
The 6-foot, 10-inch Smith, a Lampeter-Strasburg grad, is now at 237 pounds. It’s just under the playing weight he was at following the 2018-19 college men’s basketball season, where he was named the PSAC Freshman of the Year after a highly-successful rookie campaign with the NCAA Division II East Stroudsburg men’s basketball team.
He had built his body back up thanks to regaining his appetite and lifting weights in the renovated home gym in his family’s garage, having purchased equipment earlier this year with money raised for him by the East Stroudsburg University Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
Smith expressed patience as he continues to deal with neuropathy in his feet. But he had plans to return to the East Stroudsburg campus in January in order to use the school’s facilities and get back to doing some basketball activities.
“And get help from coaches to do some actual basketball movements and drills,” Smith said. “Instead of lifting and jumping at my house.”
Then came Wednesday and a standard check-up in Philadelphia at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where bloodwork caused alarm that led to a biopsy, which ultimately revealed a gut punch Thursday: the leukemia has returned.
It’s a setback, certainly. But the Smith family received a bit of good news Friday in regards to the next steps. Smith, 21, will be going back to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Dec. 16 so doctors can harvest some of his cells. Around February or March, he’ll undergo a two-week clinical trial at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that will put cells in him that will essentially be programmed to attack the leukemia cells.
If that fails, Smith will be lined up for a second stem cell transplant, but not from the same donor as his first. Fortunately, Smith has around 15 donor matches from which to choose.
Smith’s father, Craig, shared the following on his son’s Caringbridge.org page Friday evening: “We asked the doctor if a second transplant is typical and she said it is not for AML (which is what he has) since the majority of AML patients are 65-plus and can’t withstand a second transplant. The good news is that Ryan is 21 and right now has his weight back up to 237 lbs, so he could physically withstand it.”
The original intent of this story was to announce the following: Smith is the recipient of the 2020 “Inspirational Athletes” award, which was to be given to him at the Lancaster County Sports Hall of Fame banquet. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of that banquet. And Smith and the LCSHOF Class of 2020 will instead be recognized at next year’s banquet.
He’s receiving the award for his courageous effort over his cancer journey the last 16 months. Along the way, he’s gained an overwhelming amount of support from within Lampeter-Strasburg School District and East Stroudsburg University and the surrounding communities. Here are some examples:
-Student sections across the Lancaster-Lebanon League wore orange at football games the night of Sept. 27 - orange is the color of leukemia awareness.
-Three Lampeter Elementary School students held a pop-up lemonade stand Sept. 6, 2019, in their Willow Street neighborhood to raise money for Smith.
-East Stroudsburg created red wristbands in support of Smith’s fight. Those wristbands ended up becoming so popular some Villanova and UPenn college basketball players wore them during games last season, as did many players and coaches in the L-L League and PSAC.
Today the Penn Quakers all wore our orange bracelets in support of our brother, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania’s sophomore center Ryan Smith, during his battle with leukemia. Stay strong Ryan!#RelentlesS! #Whānau pic.twitter.com/h8SEIZk33D— Penn Basketball (@PennBasketball) October 5, 2019
-While undergoing treatment at the Hospital of the University of Philadelphia, Smith got visits from NBA legend Charles Barkley, former Penn and Temple basketball coach Fran Dunphy and current Penn coach Steve Donahue.
- Several PSAC schools used home basketball games as a fundraiser for Smith, including Millersville.
Said Smith of the support, “I think it’s just great to see a community rally around me. ...this pandemic sucks. To have a cause and commonality, was really amazing to see. ...whether through texts, gifts or well-wishes.”
Along the way, Smith met Rowan field hockey standout Molly Gorczyca, who was undergoing the same treatment for the same type of cancer nearby. The two are now dating. A tweet from Gorczyca about it went viral, which led to their inspiring relationship being profiled on people.com.
“I think it was really cool,” Smith said.
Gorczya, by the way, is a little more than a year removed from a successful stem cell transplant and is hoping to return to the field this spring.
Meanwhile, Smith’s plans to return to basketball are on hold.
Earlier in the week, before he received the bad news, Smith was asked what he has learned to this point in his journey.
“What’s helped me the most was setting small and achievable goals every day,” Smith said. “That’s been motivating for me. If you set super high goals and you don’t achieve them right away, you feel defeated. But if you set smaller, achievable goals on a daily basis, it’ll help you feel better about yourself, and eventually you’ll work your way to that big goal.”
At the time he said it, Smith’s little goal was building his way up to jogging one mile.
What are his big goals?
“To be the PSAC Player of the Year,” he said. “And play professionally, whether that be in the NBA or overseas.”
Those big goals are still attainable. Smith will just have to wait a little bit longer for a shot at reaching them.
“We know this is another tough road,” Craig Smith said on the Caringbridge.org post Friday. “But we are optimistic about the approach we heard about and feel better than we did the past two days since a path forward is now in place. We know that it’s in God’s hands. Continued prayers are appreciated.”