Swimmers, community rally behind cancer patient

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TRAFALGAR, Ind. (AP) — As Indian Creek Middle School students returned to school Monday, they came decked out in pink.

Students wore pink T-shirts and bracelets emblazoned with "ChaseStrong." All of the school's teachers wore the shirts during a service day Friday.

Signs around the school and at the entrance of the Indian Creek pool declare, "We love you Chase." Dozens of signatures cover each one.

The Indian Creek community and swimmers from all over the country are showing their support for 13-year-old Chase Smith and his family.

In July, Chase was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a cancerous tumor of the bones and soft tissue.

Hundreds of Facebook posts have been made with the #ChaseStrong theme, with everyone from local swim clubs to Olympic champions Michael Phelps and Conor Dwyer sending along their encouraging words.

The outpouring of support has helped him cope with the months of treatment ahead, Chase told the Daily Journal (http://bit.ly/1zQI0sJ ).

"I was really surprised because I didn't expect that all of them would know about it," he said. "I've always looked up to a lot of the people who were supporting me, so it was exciting."

What started as a gesture by the Indian Creek Aquatic Club to support a teammate has grown exponentially.

Local teams have posed with posters and signboards. They made pink — Chase's favorite color — an unofficial team color on the swim deck and around the pools.

"It's been great just how giving and generous the whole community has been. The time, money, everything has really been amazing," said Rhett Wisener, assistant swimming coach at Indian Creek. "At times like this, you really see how down-to-earth everyone is and how caring they are for everyone."

Wisener was one of the first people to learn about Chase's diagnosis. He and Katie Reese, a former Indian Creek swimmer, talked together about creating a sign of solidarity for swimmers in the area.

They chose #ChaseStrong and encouraged local teams to voice their support.

At the same time, they reached out to swimmers across the country.

Record-breaking swimmers Eric Shanteau, Cullen Jones and Mary DeScenza Mohler have posted pictures of themselves on his page and offered encouraging words.

Phelps, with Dwyer and fellow swimmer Chase Kalisz, held a poster board reading, "Chase, Wishing you a speedy recovery! Hope you're up and splashing soon!"

He has been visited by the Indiana University swim team, who hung around his family's Trafalgar home to play video games and a lively game of Apples to Apples.

"Swimming, just like any sport, there's fierce competition. But the best thing about the swimming community is that we've really set all of that aside," his father, Brad Smith, said. "It's more than just someone holding a sign and taking a picture. We've gotten some really heartfelt stories and reaching out. It's been very humbling and moving."

Chase has been swimming for almost his entire life. He is a five-time state champion swimmer and competes year-round.

His father is the head swimming coach at Indian Creek High School. His mother, Kelli Smith, is a special services teacher at Indian Creek Elementary School and supporter of the swim teams.

"He has had some success, and through that, we've been blessed to hear stories about Chase's character on the pool deck," Brad Smith said. "So many people have told us what a humble competitor he was, and people were touched by what was happening to him."

An increasing pain in his leg was the first indicator that something was wrong with Chase.

During a swim meet in South Carolina in late June, he complained that his right leg really hurt. He had been dealing with some leg pain for the past few months, but it suddenly became intense, Kelli Smith said.

Trainers thought that Chase may have torn his quadricep muscle, since the leg was really swollen. After the meet, the family scheduled an appointment with an orthopedic specialist.

Scans showed that the problem wasn't a strain or a tear. Instead, it was the telltale signs of a growth.

"The bone was nice and smooth, then it got rigid at a certain point. The doctor said that was from a tumor," Kelli Smith said. "He didn't know if it was shadowing or the tumor compromising the bone, but it wasn't good."

An oncology orthopedic surgeon at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis took on Chase's care. After a biopsy, it was determined he had Ewing sarcoma.

The rare form of cancer most often strikes children. In children younger than 15, the survival rate is now 75 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"They don't know how it happens. They don't know how to prevent it, and they don't know why. It's not environmental; it just happens," Brad Smith said.

Because Ewing sarcoma is an aggressive form of cancer, doctors have formulated a quick and strong treatment plan for Chase. He goes to Riley every two weeks for chemotherapy. His doses rotate between two-day and five-day stays in the hospital and will last until October.

At that point, further scans and tests will determine what is left of the tumor. Once doctors see the progress, they'll surgically remove a portion of bone and the muscle around it. Chase will have a cadaver bone implanted in his leg.

After physical therapy to rehabilitate the weakened leg, he'll undergo another round of chemotherapy, which hopefully will kill off any remaining cancer cells, Kelli Smith said.

For now, the family is focused on individual chemotherapy sessions, making it through each day without any setbacks.

A GoFundMe site has been set up to help with costs for gas and other incidentals that come up with Chase's treatment. More than $8,600 has come in so far.

From the initial diagnosis, the Trafalgar community has stepped forward for the Smiths. The day that Chase was scheduled to get a biopsy on his leg, more than 200 people met the family outside their door to pray with them.

They lined the road to cheer and wish them luck.

People have come over to mow their lawn and clean the house while they've been at the hospital. Because chemotherapy will weaken Chase's immune system, friends have made sure their air ducts are cleaned and ready for his return.

"We're so blessed to be in the community we're in now. They have embraced us with this," Kelli Smith said. "With both of us being teachers, people keep saying that we've touched so many lives, now it's time for them to help us."

When Indian Creek schools went back to school Monday, students and staff wore the #ChaseStrong shirts. Chase, an eighth-grader, will be schooled at home by an Indian Creek teacher this semester. He wasn't at school for the first day.

But knowing that so many people are pulling for him will give him strength, Chase said.

"At a time that is very hard, to have that kind of support has been really uplifting and encouraging, especially to see him react to it," Brad Smith said. "There are days when it would be easy to go the route of 'Why me?' It brings encouragement."

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Information from: Daily Journal, http://www.dailyjournal.net

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