World champion boat racer beats cancer

Edward Smith was a cancer patient, diagnosed with an oropharynx cancer stage 3 (head and neck cancer). His doctors included Dr. Farzan Siddiqui and Dr. Steven Chang, and he was treated primarily at HFH. Here, he's shown photographed at his marina in his boat prior to a boat race. (Nick Hagen, Provided by Henry Ford Health System)

Ed Smith, a well-renowned boat racer from St. Clair, noticed a small lump in his neck.

“It went from the size of a pencil eraser to a golf ball within two months,” Smith said. “I knew it was time to see a doctor.”

Smith reached out to a friend who was a doctor that had done her residency under Dr. Steven Chang, Vice Chair of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery for Henry Ford Health System. She recommended he see Dr. Chang.

Two weeks later, Smith met with Dr. Chang and he ordered a CT scan followed by an ultrasound-guided biopsy of the tumor. The results revealed that Smith was suffering from stage III squamous cell oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer where cancer cells are found in the middle part of your throat, which includes the tonsils, just beyond your tongue.

“This type of cancer grows rapidly, but it has a very good cure rate, which is why we also focus on making sure patients have good function and quality of life following treatment,” Dr. Chang said.

“I quickly realized that whatever the outcome, I had lived a full life, and most people don’t get to do what I’ve done,” Smith said.

Boat racing beginnings

Smith developed the need for speed nearly 30 years ago when he started racing. From then on, he was hooked.

Smith has raced all over the world, winning countless titles. He also owns a race team and a marina and was inducted into the Port Huron Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

“I told Dr. Chang I wasn’t ready to give that up, and I was hopeful I would make a full recovery to get back to doing what I loved.”

Powering through

Dr. Chang suggested two treatment options for Smith’s case. The first was surgery to remove the cancer in his throat with robotic assistance. The second was radiation with concurrent chemotherapy.

After meeting with the rest of the head and neck rehabilitation team, which includes a speech and swallow specialist, dietician and psychologist, Dr. Chang and Smith met again to talk about the goals of his cancer care beyond just the cure. It was decided that radiation was more favorable.

“We made a thoughtful decision together,” Dr. Chang said. “Even though I was not going to be operating on Ed, I was still the quarterback that would lead his care team.”

Edward Smith (Provided by Henry Ford Health System)

Smith’s plan consisted of 35 external beam radiation treatments using an intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) technique. He received the radiation five days a week for seven weeks, with five cycles of chemotherapy during his treatment.

“Radiation treatment is a standard of care for this type of cancer, and it is very effective,” said Dr. Farzan Siddiqui, Vice-Chair of Radiation Oncology and Director of Head and Neck Radiation Oncology at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. ”It wasn’t going to be easy, since there are side effects from radiation, but we were all hopeful for an excellent outcome.”

Smith’s care was managed by the multidisciplinary head and neck cancer team, which included his physicians and he received support from a dietitian, speech language pathologist, clinical psychologist and nurse practitioners.

Rough waters ahead

Smith suffered from significant pain, weight loss, loss of taste and dryness of mouth, as is commonly seen in patients undergoing this form of treatment.

“The pain from the radiation was unimaginable, and at one point, it started to take over, but I knew I had to power through it,” Smith said. “And it’s easy to get depressed, which is why it’s so important to stay in touch with people and keep moving, even on the days you don’t feel like it.”

Smith ended up recovering well from his treatment-related side effects, and his follow-up PET scan, done three months after completion of therapy, showed a complete tumor response.

Reaching the finish line

Smith went back to boat racing in May 2021. His first race back was in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and he won. He is still going strong and will continue to race as long as he can.