You grow through what you go through

Date: 17 March 2022

Teya Smith hails from Mackay, Queensland. Her cancer journey took her far from home to seek the best possible treatment in Brisbane. At Sony Foundation's Wharf4ward event, she shared her story and how the You Can Stay program was there for her family when they needed it most. 

When I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with Gardener’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes the growth of gastrointestinal polyps, along with various types of benign and malignant tumours almost anywhere in your body. This disease also puts you at an extremely high risk of developing many other types of cancers such as pancreatic, thyroid, central nervous system, and more to name a few. In fact, without the removal of your large intestine, bowel cancer is inevitable.

Now understandably, this was a lot to take in at the young age of 12; but I was comforted by the fact that I had a strong team of doctors behind me. For years, I travelled the 975km between my hometown of Mackay to Brisbane to see specialists, have different surgeries, procedures, and more. Whilst this was really difficult, I was really lucky that for the first 5 years of my diagnosis, my disease was actually quite manageable.

Fast forward a few years and it is December of 2019; I had just graduated high school and 15 years of dancing. I was incredibly excited to leave school, start university and just grab life with two hands. I remember waking up one morning with a really sore shoulder, a week later and the pain still hadn’t gone away so I decided to book into the Physio to get it looked at, figuring I had just overdone myself at dancing. A few physio sessions in and my physio points out a lump in my shoulder to me, so small you could have mistaken it for a knot. My stomach immediately sunk, having a condition such as mine leads you to, unfortunately, assume the worst in these kinds of scenarios. A few weeks and multiple ultrasounds and MRIs later, my worst fears were confirmed.

I was diagnosed with a Desmoid tumour, an extremely rare invasive soft tissue tumour that piggybacks my Gardener’s syndrome. These tumours are quite painful, aggressive, and severely damage surrounding tissue and vital structures as they grow. Due to the rarity, complexity, and the general unpredictability of these tumours treatment is difficult as there is no one size fits all approach because they all behave and respond differently. Surgery wasn’t an option for me, at this stage, my tumour was about the size of an orange and too close to vital nerves, besides they were concerned that even if they got clear margins, it would grow back again. My next best option was chemotherapy.

Two days after my 18th birthday I started oral chemotherapy and continued this way for three months. It was an extremely challenging time, and I wouldn’t have gotten through it without my support system, my family and friends. I still remember clear as day after breaking the news to my little brother that I would have to start a form of chemotherapy him saying, “Teya, if you start to lose your hair I’ll shave my head too, that way you don’t have to be alone”. Or when my old primary school after hearing the news of my diagnosis and treatment sent me flowers and a care package. Or, when my friends would bring cupcakes and flowers to my house the next day if they knew I had had a bad day or night. Despite how fatiguing and difficult my treatment was, it’s acts of kindness and support like this I remember much more than the struggles.

Like I mentioned previously, these tumours are unpredictable and unfortunately, my three-month scan after the end of my chemo treatment had shown my tumour had grown. My next option was radiation, and unfortunately, this treatment was not available in my hometown of Mackay. The thought of starting a new treatment, radiation, was stomach-churning on its own. Throw on top of that the thought of moving away from my support system, finding accommodation for such a prolonged period of time, and financial aspects and it becomes worse.

So, then, when we received the call from the Sony Foundation’s You Can Stay program to offer us a place we could call home throughout my treatment, without costs, it was a miracle. It took away the emotional and financial burdens associated with this new phase of my treatment so I could focus on what was most important, my health. On top of this, it gave me a place where family and friends could stay when they came to visit, it gave me a little piece of home when I was far from my own home. 

So for 44 nights during my radiation treatment, my family stayed at the Quest apartments near the hospital, we felt really lucky to have a place so close to where my treatment was that my family could all stay at together.

My story doesn’t end there.

Since then, I’ve had new tumours grow, further surgeries, further medication, and countless amounts of scans and doctor’s appointments. Just a few weeks ago, I was in tears in my car after a scan that revealed my tumour in my shoulder is growing once again. Just this week, I started a new clinical trial in the hopes of finally stopping the growth of my tumour and hopefully, shrink it once and for all.

My illness has taken a lot from me, it’s taken parts of my mobility, hundreds of nights of sleep, outings with friends… but it has also given me a lot. It’s given me strength, it’s given me beautiful moments with friends, family, and even strangers that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s given me opportunities like this, where I can share a wonderful day with all of you and fundraise for an extremely important cause.   

I think at the end of the day my illness has given me an understanding that you grow through what you go through, I wouldn’t be who I am without the story I just shared with you all, and although difficult it’s a really important part of me and the way that I’ve fought through it is something I’m ultimately proud of.

In a few weeks, it’ll be my one-year anniversary since I finished chemotherapy. Since then, I’ve enrolled into a Bachelor of Social Work at university so I can one day do what my social workers did for me and provide support to young people battling cancer. I’ve joined the Chimera Legacy Foundation as a patient ambassador, a charity that aims to relieve patient stress and anxiety by using virtual reality technology. I still attend as many You Can centre events and workshops as possible – even though I’m not a patient anymore. And most importantly – I can currently cancer free and no longer bald!

Throughout my journey, I went through tremendous personal growth, met many amazing, beautiful humans and I found my purpose. I'm about to share with you a quote that I first heard when I was thirteen years old and has stayed with me ever since. ‘If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look towards the darkness, it is all you will ever see’.

The You Can centre was a source of light for me in a time when the darkness seemed to surround me.

I can’t thank the Sony Foundation enough for all they’ve done to support young people fighting cancer.

Thank you for listening.   

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