Destrehan native Gabriel “Gabe” Smira was 16 when he first found out he had cancer.
After complaining of back pain for weeks, his mother, Peggy Smira, an x-ray technician, got him into St. Charles Parish Hospital for an x-ray.
“I was the one who found the cancer,” she said. “I did the MRI and the doctor looked at it and made the diagnosis.”
A tumor was found in Gabe’s lower spine and pelvis. Doctors diagnosed him with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that aggressively attacks the bones of teenagers and young adults. He was given a 20 percent chance of surviving the cancer.
“I was diagnosed a week before I turned 17,” he said. “They took me out of school five weeks early so I could begin my treatment.”
Peggy said she had seen other patients get diagnosed with cancer, but having it affect her family was something different.
“I work in the medical profession, but when it is your child it hits home,” she said. “It is very frightening to think of the possibility of your child dying.”
Due to the nature of the tumor, the fact that they found it early was good for their potential treatment outcomes.
“It’s such an aggressive cancer and it’s fast growing, so if you don’t catch it early enough you don’t have much of a chance,” Gabe said.
Doctors wanted to remove the tumor, but at the time medical technology was not advanced enough for a massive surgery that would have required the removal of a portion of his lower spine and pelvis.
Instead, Gabe began treatment for the cancer in May 2001.
After three rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the tumor disappeared and went into remission by the time he finished treatment in March 2002. Only two months later Gabe would graduate from high school cancer free.
Over the next decade Gabe, now 29, became an auto mechanic and worked for a car dealer, but had to quit due to the stress on his back that was weakened due to the illness and treatments. He then went to work for AmSpec in St. Rose, inspecting the loads of barges that come into and out of the area to ensure companies are shipping and receiving the correct goods.
He said over the years the thought that the cancer might come back was always in the back of his mind, but he tried not to focus on it too much.
“It is always something I think about depending on where I am at and what I am doing,” he said. “If I keep busy I am not trying to remember stuff like that.”
His life moved on and last year he was engaged to Ashley Reyna of Luling.
“When we started dating and got together I told her all about it,” he said.
In early 2012 Gabe celebrated 10 years cancer free by getting a tattoo of a cancer awareness ribbon, but his celebration would not last long.
“In March of last year I made ten years clean of cancer and then the end of June I found out it came back again,” he said.
Peggy, who had since become the director of the radiology department at St. Charles Parish Hospital, said when Gabe began complaining of back pain again they knew that the cancer was back.
“It was the same pain in the same place,” she said.
The only difference was that this time the cancer was not Ewing’s sarcoma, but a side effect from the radiation treatments he had received as a teenager. This time around the option of surgically removing the tumor was available because medical technology had greatly improved.
Gabe and Ashley went ahead with their wedding in October of last year despite Gabe’s diagnosis.
Peggy said Ashley was obviously the right choice as her daughter-in-law.
“She has been by his side the whole time,” she said. “Any other person I think would have said ‘I haven’t gotten married yet. I’m not going to go through this.’”
The only thing the couple changed was their honeymoon plans.
“We only got to go on a two-night honeymoon in Alabama. The day we drove home I had to drive straight to the doctor’s office to get chemo,” Gabe said.
Then in March of this year, after five months of chemotherapy treatments, Gabe underwent two extensive surgeries to remove his lower spine and pelvis and replace the removed bone with the fibula from his left leg.
“The first was a 10-hour surgery. Three days later he had a second surgery that was 11 hours,” Peggy said. “They wanted to remove everything that was even close to the tumor.”
Since the surgery Gabe has been confined to a wheelchair and has started physical therapy.
“During the surgery they cut from my belly button in the front all the away around my hip to my back. They cut through muscle and it was like I had no muscle there at all. I had to build it up to even be able to lift my leg up,” he said. “It is basically like learning how to use my leg again.”
The leg bone doctors refashioned for Gabe’s pelvis still has to heal, but he has been walking with the assistance of a walker. Unfortunately, once he has completed recovery he will not be able to go back to work as an inspector, but he has been promised a job of some sort.
“My boss told me once I am back on my feet and moving around they are going to put me in the office. They already guaranteed me I’d still have a job when I got back,” Gabe said. “I just can’t have the same title because I won’t be able to get around on the barges any more.”
In the meantime, Gabe and Ahsley have been living with their parents while Gabe recovers. They first lived with Smira’s parents in Destrehan, but have now moved in with Reyna’s family in Luling.
“We’d like them to start a normal life as a young couple and to get back in work and start a normal life together,” Peggy said. “As hard as it is for us it is harder for him.”
Part of beginning that normal life will be Gabe’s successful recovery, and for that the family is asking the community for help. On Aug. 4 from 1-4 p.m. they will be holding a benefit at Rock ‘n’ Bowl in New Orleans called Gabe-a-palooza. Tickets will be $50 per adult and children and students will receive free admission. Donations can be made and tickets can be purchased by visiting www.gabeapalooza.eventbrite.com.
Raffle tickets and t-shirts will be available for purchase as well. All proceeds will go towards the massive medical costs of Gabe’s surgeries as well as his continuing physical therapy. For more information about the Smiras and how you can get involved, call (504)229-2499 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.