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Sharing the Helm

By Dee Smith
Dee Smith, 64, has sailed for much of his life, and his skill has taken him around the world to compete in regattas like the famed Admiral’s Cup. In 2007, Smith found a tumor while racing in Europe. He returned home to Maryland and met with doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. His stage 4 lung cancer had metastasized, destroying a portion of his spine and leaving him officially disabled. Smith, who was used to being the one at the helm, had to learn to hand over control to others. Today his cancer is in remission, and he’s sailing competitively, most recently in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

My Worst Day

I first felt pain in my back in February 2007. That May, I was competing in a big regatta in Italy, sailing on a Finnish team. I was in so much pain that I could barely take it. I would just scream once in a while, but I kept sailing. The team would turn around and look at me. Then on the way in, they hung me upside down from lifelines to take the pressure off my back. The next week, I had an MRI and they found the cancer. 

What I Did to Get Better

The hardest decision is picking who you want to help you. I knew I had to trust someone, and let that person run the show. I manage race boats and do tactics while racing, which means I direct how the boat is set up and raced by the crew. Someone has to be in charge. It would be about as smart for me to run my cancer treatment as it would be for my doctors to run one of my race boats. I let the Hopkins doctors take over.

Me Now

I don’t even think about the cancer anymore. For some reason, drugs can treat the disease I have. I’m one of the few. There’s a process you’ve got to go through if you’re sailing: You’ve got to go through the shit to get to the good stuff. That’s how I see life. You can’t expect it to be perfect. I didn’t know if I was going to survive, but I knew I wasn’t going to be the reason I wasn’t going to survive.

Illustration of a fisherman pointing out over a turbulent sea
Benjamin Currie

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