Every morning, Cindy Smith wakes up and looks around for the gifts that were sent for her that day. And despite her more than eight years of living with a neuroendocrine tumor, almost every day, she finds some. It could be her great support system or that she maintained her job throughout treatment before retiring, or something simple like a hot shower or a nice cup of coffee. “When you start your day grateful and looking for the good things, your life is going to be better,” she says.
Cindy was first diagnosed with her neuroendocrine tumor (NET), a slow-growing cancer that affects neuroendocrine cells, which are found in organs throughout the body, in 2015. She started not feeling great a few years prior and was diagnosed with food allergies, although what exactly she was allergic to remained a mystery. Eventually, Cindy ended up in the hospital for swollen legs, where a cardiologist diagnosed her with a heart issue, ultimately caused by tumors on Cindy’s liver, found in a diagnostic scan.
“They told me I had an advanced stage of incurable cancer in my liver,” Cindy recalls of her local doctors. Cindy was on her way to work when she received the news, and didn’t know whether to turn around or head in. Not wanting to go home alone, she continued to the bank where she worked, and shared the news with her boss and her best friend. Cindy’s twin sister, Susan, soon met her at the bank and said: “We have to go to Dana-Farber.”
“I was in there faster than I could imagine—frightened out of my mind,” Cindy shares. “When they tell you it’s advanced and it’s incurable, you’re worried what’s going to happen; what’s the treatment. But by the time I saw Dr. Cleary, he had already reviewed my records, and he had a plan.” Cindy immediately bonded with her oncologist, James Cleary, MD, PhD, director of clinical research in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Division of Gastrointestinal Oncology, who at the time was a young dad. Cindy recalls him telling her they’d probably still be working together when his kids were in college—that the tumor was so slow growing, by the time a treatment stopped working, a new one would be out.
Dr. Cleary took the time to understand Cindy, her life, and what was important to her, which to her, was anything but common. A do-it-herself type of lady, who had owned her own flower shop for years and taught painting on the side of her bank job, Cindy was not used to being sick and people offering to help. “I believed that I was going to be better,” she says. “And that we—me and Dr. Cleary—would do that together.”
Cindy immediately improved when she started her treatment, which consisted of a monthly injection and first weekly, then every three months, appointments. Although Dana-Farber was a long drive from her home in Webster, Mass., Cindy often found herself on the elevator next to folks who flew in from other countries for their treatment. “It’s only a hike down the [Mass] Pike,” she says. “It’s worth it to know they’re going to do everything they can.”
She kept working throughout her treatment before retiring in May 2022, and felt immense support from her colleagues at BankHometown. The bank’s president even dressed up like a zebra—the NET awareness color—one year in support of Neuroendocrine Tumor Day, November 10.
Despite a bump in the road in 2018, a kidney issue that was separate from her cancer, Cindy was doing well until her cancer progressed about a year and a half ago. But like Dr. Cleary said, there was a new treatment available when she needed it.
Having benefitted from newer treatments, Cindy understands the importance of research—and the role everyone can play in advancing it. In 2016, she hosted a paint night at her own art studio in town—a night that turned into four nights, because the demand to attend was so high. Cindy raised $5,000 and brought a painting to Dr. Cleary on her next visit, which touched him so much he wanted to be a part of the next one. Cindy soon planned a bigger, better event for 2017, this time at her local church to accommodate more of her community members. They ended up with 200 people painting and 12 teachers, including Cindy. The group raised more than $11,000 and Dr. Cleary was there—painting alongside everyone else, sharing his research, and even offering to help clean up.
“These doctors are so smart,” Cindy says. “I’m not smart enough to cure cancer, but I’m smart enough to help Dr. Cleary do his research.”
“Not everyone can bike or golf or run, but I can paint,” she continues. “Dr. Cleary will send me a paper of his research, and of course sometimes the only thing I understand is his name, but he takes the time to explain it, and knowing you are a part of that is mind boggling to me.”
Although Cindy’s “hike down the Pike” will continue for the foreseeable future, she wouldn’t change anything, and she won’t stop painting or fundraising anytime soon, noting she hosted another fundraiser art show fundraiser this past June. “These people have dedicated their lives to discovering a better treatment or a cure—for you,” she says. “Everyone’s had to say goodbye to someone, and we don’t want to have to do that. We want everyone to have a chance to love and to have more time to love each other.”
Interested in using your own talents to start a fundraiser in support of research and care at Dana-Farber? Learn more about becoming a Jimmy FundRaiser! Help support patients like Cindy by joiningThe Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.