Meet the SF Triathlete Attempting to Cure Cancer While Living with Lymphoma

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For almost 10 years, Mark Smith has been battling cancer. He suffers from a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that, when he was diagnosed, effected only 200 Americans each year. As a result, Smith has had to undergo numerous radiation treatments, sometimes at levels comparable to an astronaut orbiting Earth for a tour on the International Space Station. But Smith has fought back against his diagnosis in two very unique ways: by competing in triathlons to raise money for cancer research, and by performing the research himself. 


Smith’s cancer is called “cutaneous lymphoma” and is considered non-aggressive. The slowly-replicating disease affects T-cells and attacks white cells in the blood, which results in lesions on the skin and renders chemotherapy useless as treatment. 

“They didn’t know how to treat me,” said Smith. “The doctors at UCSF said they had never seen this kind of cancer in someone so young. At the time, there was a form of cutaneous lymphoma that was incredibly deadly, and they weren’t sure if I had that kind or not.”

After his diagnosis, Smith discovered and joined Team in Training, a national endurance program specifically focused on raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) through competitive racing. Whereas a majority of people join the team to honor someone else with the disease, Smith is considered an honoree—a member of the team living and battling through blood cancer. It also gave his friends and family a way to offer help in a situation where there is little anybody can actually do. 

(Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari)

A TEAM IN TRAINING

Team in Training, or TNT, is a subsection of the non-profit focused exclusively on fundraising for cancer research – and it happened almost by accident.

The first charity runners for LLS began in 1988 with Bruce Cleland, whose daughter had survived Leukemia during a time when it was rare to beat the disease. Cleland gathered 38 runners to compete in the New York City Marathon and raised $322,000 that year.

Since then, the program has raised over $1.4 billion, of which about 80 percent goes toward research and the remainder finances the team's gear and practices.

But San Francisco’s TNT program sets itself apart from other national teams by signing up for some of the most rigorous races available, such as Iron Man triathlons. In 2005, the SF chapter assembled the first competitive hiking team in the nation to hike the Grand Canyon.

But what makes Team In Training so attractive for athletes of all competitive levels isn’t so much the opportunity to fundraise for a cause that oftentimes touches close to home, it’s also a place where strong friendships are forged and an extension of family is made, according to SF chapter triathlon coach Haakon Thallug.

"As a group of individuals we come together for a cause—and unfortunately that cause is tragic," said Thallug. "Though, we do try to also focus on the fun.”

HOPE FOR A CURE 

Mark Smith is also unique in that he conducts his own research at Stanford University with the help of LLS. Smith fills a often-overlooked hole in cancer research: projects for patients whose lymphoma isn’t dire, simply aren’t there due to low demand.

“Having gone through this experience and relapsing and going back into treatment, it’s really frustrating to know how limited the options really are for patients,” he said. “It’s still not enough. Whenever you say the survivor rate is 70% every five years, that’s still 30% of people that are dying.”

That increase in patient survivor rates is in part due to the super drug Rutaxin, whose early research was funded by LLS, said Smith.

And that’s where LLS separates itself from other cancer research institutions. The company oftentimes funds research that could be considered risky. Smith’s research is along those lines, focusing on treatment for AML patients, whose main course of treatment thus far has only been stem cell transplants. 

“AML is probably the worst form of blood cancer. The options are like ‘yeah we’ll give you a transplant, and if you survive that you could still relapse and if you relapse we have no real options,’” Smith pointed out.

Smith is working on a type of research that, if successful, could be as simple as someone taking a pill every morning, foregoing extensive and disruptive treatment.

For those that have been a part of Team In Training with Smith, they’ve witnessed exactly how their fundraising efforts can go directly toward cancer research.

“[Mark] has a really unique perspective on it,” Thallug said. “Not only is he a patient, if you will, he’s also an athlete who participates in the race, and he’s a researcher receiving funds—so he's involved from every angle.”

Smith, along with almost a dozen others from the SF team, will be competing in this year’s half Iron Man in Santa Cruz, a 70.3 mile race including swimming, biking and running. The team has raised nearly $32,000 so far.

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