Last March, doctors told Becca Smith she had two weeks to live—then tests revealed she had a type of cancer that might respond to treatment.

When Becca Smith, a 29-year-old personal trainer in the UK, started experiencing severe back pain in the beginning of 2020, she thought it was due to a weightlifting injury.

At the time, the former bikini contest champion was opening her own yoga studio, training clients seven days a week, and regularly exercising. It made sense to her that her body needed a break.

"In my head, I'm thinking please don't be a slipped disc, because that means it would affect my training, my clients, and my yoga studio," Smith tells Health. The possibility of terminal lung cancer, however, never crossed her mind.

Becca Smith
Credit: Becca Smith

A "nightmare" cancer diagnosis  

Despite seeing various physical therapists, chiropractors, and at-home private doctors, Smith's debilitating back pain went on for months, and she also experienced excruciating migraines. Then, on the second day of a two-day yoga training course, she lost her vision.

"I can only describe it as [my vision] just went black," Smith recalls. "When I was trying to touch my phone, to touch the screen, to contact somebody because I was panicking, I just couldn't get anywhere near it." A doctor discovered hemorrhaging behind both her eyes and said she needed to go to the hospital ASAP. "[That day] was when the nightmare began, basically," she says.

Becca Smith
Prior to her diagnosis, Smith was in the process of opening her own yoga studio.
| Credit: Becca Smith

At the hospital, she spent five days undergoing a variety of tests including an MRI, CT scan, and biopsy of her back. Her pain worsened, and she developed a cough. Nurses gave her morphine, hooked her to an oxygen machine, and strapped ice packs to her head, hoping to provide some relief.  

On the morning of March 18, while she was eating breakfast alone in her hospital room, the doctors told her she had cancer.

"They said it's cancer, and there's nothing we can do; it's spread all over your body," Smith says, tearing up at the memory. "That was it, they just literally like, dropped a bomb, and off they went. By this point they hadn't even looked at my biopsy because the results weren't back."

While most of that day is still a blur, Smith remembers calling her mom, screaming on the phone that it was cancer. Soon after, her parents arrived, and the doctors informed them Smith likely had just two weeks to live—the cancer was in her spine, her skull, and her lungs.

"I just remember holding onto my mom, screaming please don't let me die," Smith says. "And my mom is screaming to me, saying this is not happening. No way this is happening. You're not dying."

Smith's family decided to take her home so she could spend her last days in the comfort of her own bed. A nurse visited twice a day to bathe, dress, and feed her, since she was too weak to do so herself. Over the next week, Smith's family and friends travelled from all over England to say their goodbyes.

A biopsy result promises hope

Despite the diagnosis, her family held out hope. They researched alternative medicines, contacted cannabis doctors, consulted nutritionists. Then one day, her mom received a call—it was the biopsy results.

Smith, who had never smoked a cigarette in her life, had a rare form of lung cancer called ALK-positive. While her cancer was stage 4 and incurable, her provider told her, medications are available that can prolong a patient's life.

Becca Smith
Despite Smith's diagnosis, her and her family remained optimistic that she would live.
| Credit: Becca Smith

After hearing the news, there was a shift of energy in her house. "It was almost like there was just a glimmer of hope for me and my family," Smith says. For the first time in days, she managed to get out of bed, walk down the stairs, and take a few steps into the garden. She was later admitted to the Clatterbridge Cancer Center for treatment.  

ALK-positive lung cancer constitutes just 5% of all lung cancer cases and is the result of a genetic mutation, according to the American Lung Association. The mutation is like a typo in someone's DNA, giving cells the wrong instructions so they grow into cancer.  

While some types of cancer appear as large growths, ALK tumors are more like paint splatters scattered throughout the body, Smith says. This makes traditional cancer treatments, like surgery or radiation, less effective.

To fight the cancer, doctors use a form of targeted therapy, called tyrosine kinase inhibitor pills, which blocks the faulty signals telling cancer cells to multiply. This slows or stops tumor growth, and can even shrink tumors in some cases.

While the medication may not work for everyone, they fortunately worked for Smith. In fact, they worked so well that the tumors in Smith's brain cleared after a few months. Now, 18 months later, only a few remain in the middle of her spine and in her left lung. She continues to take her medications daily.

Why raising awareness about lung cancer is so important

Cancer aside, Smith says she's probably the healthiest she's ever been, both physically and mentally, due to the new way she approaches life. Prior to her cancer diagnosis, she says she was focused on building a business empire and making money. Today, her only goal is to live a long, full, and healthy life.

Becca Smith
Since her diagnosis, Smith has slowly reintroduced regular exercise back into her routine.
| Credit: Becca Smith

"I don't allow any stress or negativity in my life. I now work at a local coffee shop a few days a week, which is just lovely," Smith says. "I say yes to everything because I want to make as many memories [as I can]. I just see life in a completely different way. Now, it's precious."

Smith hopes that by sharing her story she can encourage others, especially young people, to seek medical care if something isn't right. "So many people get a bit of pain and just push it aside because they think they're young and healthy, and while it probably isn't cancer, you should still get it checked out," Smith says.

Additionally, Smith shares her experience to raise awareness about lung cancer—particularly that it doesn't just afflict smokers. In fact, about 20% of lung cancer deaths are in people who never smoked or used any form of tobacco in their life, according to the American Cancer Society.

"It's just a very common thing to associate lung cancer with smoking, and with that comes a lot of blame, like 'well they smoked so it's kind of their fault,'" Smith says. "I've never smoked, and even if smoking is the reason, no one deserves to get cancer. It's just horrible."

This misconception has far-reaching implications. For one, it reduces the amount of funding allocated to lung cancer research, even though it is the number one cancer killer in the US, states the American Lung Association.

According to a 2017 review published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, the belief lung cancer is a self-afflicted disease causes patients to feel a greater sense of guilt or shame compared to other cancers. Because of this, they are more likely to keep their diagnosis a secret from family members and avoid or delay treatment. It also results in patients facing negative attitudes from health care providers.

"I guess my story is to show that anyone can get cancer. It doesn't matter how fit and healthy you are," Smith says. "You associate cancer with older people, but the reality is that it can actually happen at any age."

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