When cancer chooses an enemy, it shows no mercy. Battle lines are drawn, and the war is on. This time, however, it clearly picked the wrong fight.
One of the most aggressive forms of cancer caught hold of 56-year-old Kenneth Smalls, an active military officer and a man with outstanding optimism.
Smalls underwent an extremely complex surgical treatment to remove stage II pancreatic cancer. After receiving exceptional care from a multidisciplinary medical team at Baylor Scott & White Health, he is now back doing what he does best, which is serving in the military and being a loving grandparent.
“A little cancer isn’t going to bother me!”
Smalls isn’t just any solider, he’s a sergeant stationed at Fort Hood who has been deployed seven times and been blown up eight times. While in Iraq and Afghanistan, he worked in convey security making sure convoy soldiers passed through dangerous areas safely.
“When I got cancer, I said I’m not going down without a fight,” Smalls said.
His fight was real, and he feels lucky they caught this deadly cancer early enough.
Smalls had been feeling sick and nauseous for months. After visiting other providers at various hospitals, he sought care from Scott & White Medical Center – Temple where oncologist Lucas Wong, MD, FACP diagnosed him with stage II pancreatic cancer in May 2013, just two months after moving to the area.
“When I was first referred to see Dr. Wong, he was really nice and gave me a warm reception,” Smalls said. “It kind of helped my uneasy feelings go away.”
The news of the cancer was startling, especially for Smalls’ wife Leilani. She was worried, along with their four children and 11 grandchildren.
“My wife is my backbone,” Smalls said. “If it wasn’t for her, my attitude would probably be down in the tubes. She was always kicking me and telling me I need to shake my attitude.”
Smalls said he also found his strength to smile by thinking of his grandchildren. They were his motivation to stay calm and bounce back.
“I live for my grandkids,” Smalls said. “I don’t worry about me. I worry about be getting better so I can be there for them.”
Victory despite complex surgery
After his diagnosis, Smalls was scheduled for tests and surgery. He caught pneumonia in the middle of this, and after healing was cleared for surgery in September.
Terry C. Lairmore, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist on the medical staff at Scott & White Medical Center – Temple, discovered he had a complete blockage of his abdomen. He and his team performed surgery for nearly eight hours to remove half of Smalls’ stomach, half of his small intestines, one-fourth of his pancreas, and 21 lymph nodes. In the reconstruction phase of the operation, the intestine, bile duct and remaining portion of the pancreas are reconnected. This difficult and demanding procedure is called the Whipple procedure.
“Dr. Lairmore was outstanding,” Smalls said. “He has the most experience, and I felt really comfortable with him.”
On the day of surgery, some of the men from Small’s unit at Fort Hood went to the hospital to be there to sustain his wife during the lengthy procedure. Their support was tremendous.
“My wife and my unit are all behind me 100 percent,” Smalls said. “They gave me all the support I needed.”
After the surgery, the unit presented Dr. Lairmore a thank-you plaque. Smalls said the gift was, “for keeping me around a little longer.”
Dr. Lairmore was proud of the outcome of the surgery and very pleased with Smalls. When hearing his surgical options to treat his aggressive form of cancer and the possibility for negative outcomes, Smalls never wavered in his good humor. He reminded Dr. Lairmore he had been blown up, so surgery was nothing to worry about.
Looking ahead with a positive perspective
Due to Smalls likable and infectious personality, he has made a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impression on the team of doctors and nurses. He was in the hospital on multiple floors, and had a good experience with his care.
“I’m just grateful for Baylor Scott & White,” Smalls said, “I can’t say enough good things. If it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t be here right now. All of the doctors and nurses went above and beyond taking care of me.”
Smalls was anxious to get back to work and was only out for less than two months. He now serves on base doing administrate work for his unit. He says he’s doing well and looking forward to visiting his hometown of Las Vegas shortly.
As for his fight against cancer, he’s completing his third and last round of chemotherapy and is now cancer-free.