Nurse Of Triplets: “I Went For Neck Pain And They Found Cancer”

She went to the doctor for neck pain and discovered she has Hodgkin Lymphoma. Now this IU Health nurse and mother of five – including 11-year-old triplets – is accepting the care given by others.

On any give day, Cheryl Smitherman, is working with a team of case managers and social workers to assess patient needs. As an integrated case management nurse at University Hospital that could mean coordinating extended care when a patient leaves the hospital or evaluating the patient’s needs during a hospital stay.

And that’s just what she does part of her day. She also works a second job at another hospital; taxis her five children to sports practices and various school activities; serves at her church; and like most moms, is busy planning for the holidays.

“I have a Type A personality. I’m always on the go,” said Smitherman. She’s a co-leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troupe, has led Boy Scout dens, and coached soccer. She was preparing to go back to school to get her nurse practitioner license when life suddenly slowed down.

A year ago in November, she went to the emergency room complaining of neck pain. Initial testing indicated she had cancer.

“They thought I had lung cancer at first. I didn’t want to believe that,” said Smitherman. She reached out to Becky Hardin, an oncology nurse coordinator, and was admitted to IU Health. Further scans showed she has Hodgkin Lymphoma. She is under the care of Dr. Michael Robertson.

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Hodgkin Lymphoma is one of the most curable types of cancer. It is a cancer of the lymphatic system, part of the immune system, and affects people at any age, but most commonly those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old and those over 55.  Smitherman turns 42 just five days before Christmas.

She completed treatment and was in remission until the end of March. She returned to work and her busy life of raising five children.

But the beginning of October she began having difficulty swallowing. Her lymph nodes were swollen and she felt like she had strep throat. Tests showed she had relapsed. She again started chemotherapy to control the cancer.

During a recent treatment Smitherman talked about how life has changed since her diagnosis. As she talked, co-worker Kali Bonanni dropped by to deliver a snack and check on her friend.

“She is strong,” said Bonanni. “She loves her kids and would do anything for them. Cheryl is also willing to help out others. Cheryl is a team player and helps when it is needed.”

As a caregiver, it’s difficult for Smitherman to accept help from others. “My co-workers have been amazing. Very helpful to me and my family,” she said.

A graduate of Ben Davis High School, Smitherman received her nursing degree from Indiana University and started her first job with IU Health working in the lab at Methodist in 1997. She then worked in pediatric resources with Riley Hospital for Children and migrated to IU Health North in NICU and pediatrics.  She returned to University Hospital two years ago in her current role in case management.

It was a fellow nurse, Angie Thompson who convinced Smitherman she would be a good nurse. They were on a trip to Israel, Egypt and Jordan when Smitherman began discussing her options in medicine. She was biology major at the time and switched to nursing. She completed her degree in 2003.

A year later she married her husband John. When their oldest daughter was born 12 years ago, they named her after one of Smitherman’s former Riley patients – Hannah. Next came their triplets Jack, Emma, and Claire, 11; and then their youngest Samuel, nine.

She was raised as the youngest child – an older sister and older brother, but later in life her parents adopted two girls from China who are now 16 and 11. “It’s a little funny when your younger siblings attend the same school as your children and you hear them calling, ‘Aunt,’” said Smitherman.

Throughout her diagnosis and treatment, Smitherman has relied on what she calls the “three F’s” – Faith, Family, and Friends.

She chooses a different scripture each day – many take her back to that trip to the Holy Land when she decided to become a nurse.

“My grandmother had a bible from Bethlehem. I remember I was five and I just loved it and said that one day I’d have one of my own so when I went on my trip to the Holy Land, I got one. It’s very special to me,” said Smitherman.

And when it comes to her family, Smitherman’s voice softens. She begins to talk about how she told her children of her diagnosis. It wasn’t easy.

“In the beginning, we didn’t use the word ‘cancer.’ We kept it simple and told them what we knew. Once we knew what was ahead, we told them about the cancer and that I’d take chemotherapy and get better,” said Smitherman. “They were there when I had my head shaved. I thought I’d cry but then I realized I look more like my son with my head shaved.”

Her kids have been involved with fundraisers for cancer including the Relay for Life and the Curtain Dance Center. So they know the tough questions.

“I do get asked, ‘Mommy, will you die?’ I tell them ‘we are all going to die,’” said Smitherman. “This diagnosis has taught me to slow down.”

And as a nurse, Smitherman uses her diagnosis to better understand and empathize with her patients.

“I have had patients say, ‘You’re the first person who understands my pain.’ There are different layers of pain having cancer and there are things people have given me to help me get through from snacks to advice,” said Smitherman. “The one thing we can’t do is solve the problem and make the cancer go away. Cancer is one day at a time.”

— By T.J. Banes,  Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email