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Going the Distance in a Race with Prostate Cancer

Read Time: 3 minutes

Four men kneeling next to a race car

On and off-road motorcycles, fuel dragsters, hydroplane boats, sail boats, power boats, bicycles, and now cars: J.R. Smith has raced all of these. A lifelong competitor, J.R. awoke one day in May of 2019 to extreme pain in his hip and knee. The day before, he had gone on a long bicycle ride—which was typical for him. At first, he thought it was an injury. But after stretching, then visiting an orthopedic surgeon, and eventually undergoing several months of physical therapy, his symptoms were getting worse, not better. Something wasn’t right. He got an MRI.

J.R. and his wife, Jill, a record-setting cyclist in her own right, were sitting on the couch watching TV one Friday night. The phone rang. It was J.R.’s doctor. They had found cancer.

The Smith family was shocked. They took a moment to process but didn’t have much time. The radiologist who first saw the MRI thought it might have started in the prostate and spread. J.R. was scheduled to come into his doctor’s office first thing Monday morning. The physician told J.R. to go to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) immediately.

At HCI, J.R. was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. It had spread to his ribs, hip, and femur. “The femur and hip were pretty much deteriorated,” J.R. said. “We scheduled a surgery and I had my hip replaced and a rod put down my femur to stabilize it. Right after, I had difficulty with movement, so they recommended I go to a skilled nursing facility for 28 days. Then I did rehabilitation.” J.R. says it took him 11 months before he could tie his shoe or put on his own sock.

“Most of the problems for me with cancer were more mental, not physical. I had an okay time accepting the pain. But I wasn’t accepting that I couldn’t get back to where I wanted, in the time frame I wanted,” J.R. says.

But he is nothing if not a competitor. And maybe there’s truth in the old saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” J.R. says that once he committed himself to working with his new limitations, he found hope again. Eventually, he returned to the sport he loved with the help of his HCI care team.

“I got back in a race car and my performance was actually pretty good,” J.R. says. A racing instructor, J.R. started a partnership with some of his colleagues at Ford Performance Racing School. George Smith and Donny Edwards, who are both cancer patients at HCI, joined J.R. James Burke is the fourth member. The name they chose? Team Fight Cancer. Their mission? To inspire others and demonstrate how teamwork and support help cancer survivors make the most of their lives. They raise funds for Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

J.R. and his teammates work tirelessly to use their race car, their love of sport, and their own personal stories to share hope and thrills with others impacted by cancer. In other words, they focus on the mental: inspiration. In summer 2020, J.R. and Team Fight Cancer won a six-hour endurance race. “It required hard work, never giving up, and teamwork—the same attributes needed to fight cancer,” J.R. says.

Though he was initially reluctant to talk about his diagnosis, he now finds it rewarding to share his experience. “I tell people, here’s my situation, here’s what I do, and here’s the approach I have to really keep living my life.”

J.R. says he’ll have cancer the rest of his life. “The cancer is not going to go away. All I’m doing is stabilizing it. But instead of thinking, ‘What am I going to do next year?’, let’s figure out what we’re going to do this afternoon. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do tomorrow. Don’t let this thing get you down because you can live a good, productive life, whatever that may be. And you can enjoy life and enjoy the people around you, even though you have cancer.”

Cancer touches all of us.