Rockport CFO, Mike Smith, will be leading the Rockport Team as they walk with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for this year’s ‘Light the Night’ walk in Boston – a night for families, survivors and supporters to gather in the hopes of finding a cure. We caught up with Mike on what makes this walk so special and how the cause has personally touched him.
Why is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society important to you?
My family has known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when it comes to blood cancers. The one thing I’ve learned over the years about cancer is that it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you are rich, poor, young, old, weak or strong. It takes over your life whenever it feels like it. Back in 2005, I was looking for something more meaningful to do with myself. I had just turned forty (oh, the horror) and sold my company. For the first forty years of my life I was relentlessly focused on the health and well-being of three people: me, myself and I. As fun as that was, I was beginning to think that if I had another forty years, I should aim for a slightly higher purpose. I had this thing rattling around in my head that I could help find a cure for cancer. Not actually help with the science as I couldn’t even dissect a frog in high school but through raising money for those with much more talent than me. Someone’s dollar is going to pay for the research that will unlock the cure. So, I attended an LLS recruiting meeting to run a marathon as part of their Team in Training campaign. As compelling as their sales pitch was I did not sign up that night, mostly due to my lifelong fear of commitment.
The very next day my wife called me at work to tell me that her Mom was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Considering this a sign, I drove over to the LLS office and joined Team in Training that afternoon. Thus, the first ten years of my involvement were really a thank you to the organization as my mother-in-law has not only survived, but has flourished. We continue to have a great relationship which I suspect is somewhat due to the fact that she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Portuguese.
Unfortunately, we also know the agony of defeat. In 2014, my Dad was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome which is a blood disorder. They used to call it pre-Leukemia but have backed off that as people can live the rest of their lives without it progressing. We weren’t so lucky as the next year was filled with many trips to Dana Farber for appointments, blood tests, and transfusions. The disease progressed into Acute Myeloid Leukemia which is one of the deadliest forms of blood cancer. Treatments haven’t really changed in four decades. Think about all the progress that has happened since the 1970’s yet none for AML. Atari Pong to Fortnite. Yet, none for AML.
Being an LLS Board Member, I knew we were funneling tens of millions of dollars into research in our “Beat AML” campaign so I needed my Dad’s version to be slow moving to take advantage of the progress we were making. It wasn’t. The only treatment was five weeks in the hospital for heavy, heavy chemotherapy, followed by another one-week round a couple of months later, followed by a stem cell transplant if a donor match was found and a year to rebuild his immune system. These chemicals are so powerful that the doctors and nurses were basically wearing HazMat suits when they came in the room with it. Each step of the way had about a 30% chance of working. Being a math geek, it didn’t take me long to realize that 30% times 30% times 30% didn’t add up to much. Of course, my Dad just kept saying that as long as he had a 1% chance, he was going to fight. And fight, he did. One of the heartbreaking parts for all of us was that he made it through the first two gates, the stem cell transplant, and six months of remission before the cancer came back with a vengeance. At the end of this particular life, he gave me another life lesson as he fought with such strength, courage, and compassion for those around him and by his side, never losing his spirit or sense of humor.
What sets Light the Night apart from other causes/charitable events?
The easy answer is that it’s at night when so many other events are held during the day. I always think it’s pretty magical when you get halfway through and the entire Common is lit up with the red, white, and gold lanterns. But my real answer is that it doesn’t require a fundraising minimum. We ask people to raise $100 to get food and a T-Shirt. One email to your friends and contacts usually results in much more than that (some monetary/some much more meaningful). Anyone can participate so it makes the night about team and community. In a strange way, we are celebrating. Our connection to each other, our progress in fighting cancer, our survivors who show up in greater numbers each year, and the memory of those that we lost who inspire us to keep on fighting. For that one night, there is no place that I would rather be.
What is the one thing you would like to tell others about LLS and Light the Night?
It’s working. There has never been a better time to be fighting cancer. The innovation and progress in therapies over the past few years has been astounding. Because blood is easier to study than tumors, LLS is on the forefront of finding cures for all types of cancers. Many of this research has been funded by the good people who have taken the time to Light the Night. So, thank you to anyone who has walked with us, donated to our team, cheered us on, or simply took the time to read a few of these words. What started as a far-fetched dream is getting closer to a reality. There will be a world without cancers in our lifetimes!
If you’d like to join us in the fight to end blood cancer, visit our donation page here.