Under normal circumstances, 8-year-old Tyana Smith is like most children her age.
She loves Hannah Montana, cheese pizza, McDonalds and the colors pink and purple. A second grader at New Castle Elementary School, Tyana’s favorite school subject is spelling.
On a recent family pool outing, Tyana had fun splashing around her two brothers and two half-brothers.
According to her mother Peggy Smith, Tyana normally is quite active, and it’s not uncommon for the second grader to run around doing flips and cartwheels.
At one point, Tyana wanted to be a dancer.
She was small for her age, just 47-pounds.
A picture of Tyana shows a gap-toothed grin that conveys nothing but happiness.
Jo Brewer, one of many community members who have acted on the Smiths’ behalf, said Tyana is the type of child to try and cheer up a classmate.
Smith, 30, said Tyana made good grades, and has quite a few friends.
“She was always saying kind words to children who were having a rough day at school,” Brewer said. “She lights up a room with her smile when she walks in.”
But then, earlier this year, the headaches started.
“She started having headaches,” Peggy Smith said. “She missed two weeks of school for the headaches. They were treating her for sinus (problems), and it wasn’t her sinuses.”
Smith would stay up at night with Tyana as the headaches increased in severity.
After treatment for Tyana’s sinuses didn’t relieve her massive headaches, Peggy took her daughter to an eye doctor, who said it probably wasn’t her eyes, and certainly wasn’t her sinuses.
“On May 15, I woke up in the middle of the night, and she was crying,” Smith said. “She was crying, we were sitting there crying together. I went and took her the next morning. I said, she’s got to have her head examined, something’s not right.”
On May 18, Smith learned that her daughter had Germinoma cancer. Though Germinoma typically appears in children and young adults, it is unusual for someone as young as Tyana to have the disease.
Further testing would reveal that Tyana had a grapefruit-sized tumor in her brain. Because of its location, the tumor is inoperable.
“She wasn’t eating, she stopped doing flips and stuff,” Smith said. “She was always sleeping, she stayed so tired. She had diabetic symptoms.”
Headaches and symptoms similar to diabetes, Smith said, are among the first symptoms of Germinoma. The family recently learned that some of the cancer cells are in Tyana’s spine.
From the time Tyana was first sick to her diagnosis was just three weeks.
Treatment for her cancer means, right now, five weeks of daily radiation treatments.
Tyana has dropped nearly half her body weight, losing 20 pounds since her diagnosis. Clothes that already were loose on her, now are even bigger. Her favorite blue jeans that once were almost too tight, now have to be kept on with a belt.
The girl who even before her sickness had a small appetite, now barely eats her favorite foods.
And though she’s lost some of her spunk — she just doesn’t feel well — Tyana won’t let her doctors do anything to her until they explain it first.
“They can come in, and before she even lets them stick her, she’s like ‘what’s this? Is this going to hurt?’
“She won’t let them do anything to her that she doesn’t know about.
Being a mother of three is tough enough.
Being a single mother of three is even tougher.
But being a single mother of three, with one very sick child is something altogether different.
Smith watched Tyana sitting in a nearby chair, the 8-year-old breathing softly as she drifted in and out of sleep. Smith speaks softly of the conversations she has with her daughter.
“She’s blaming herself,” Smith said. “I was talking about when I get to go back to work, and she started crying. She said ‘If I hadn’t gotten cancer, you could be working.’ ”
Smith’s job at a Best Western Hotel is on hold while she cares for her daughter full time. Smith’s employers have told her she will still have a job when she’s ready to come back to work.
The mother and daughter talk frequently about Tyana’s illness, and the youngster shows a wisdom beyond her years.
“She asks a lot of questions,” Smith said. “‘Am I gonna die? Can my friends get it from being around me? Am I going to be able to go back to school?’ She worries about how kids are going to react to her without her hair at school. I told her if she doesn’t feel comfortable (going back to school), I’d home school her.
“We talk about the treatments, and I told her she can’t give up. I’m always on her, it’s not your fault.”
Smith speaks mostly in positive terms about the illness that has serious consequences for her one and only daughter. Her voice trails off as she talks about what she doesn’t want to think about.
“The doctor ... he’s a doctor that wants you to keep your hopes up,” she said. “He won’t come straight out like other doctors do. He’ll ... I’m not stupid. I know.”
If the radiation doesn’t work, she said, Smith will take Tyana to St. Jude’s hospital. But it will take eight weeks from the time of the last radiation treatment to know if it worked.
Tyana’s doctors, Smith said, initially gave little indication as to just how much time the girl has left. But now, Smith said, doctors say the cancer could be “99 percent curable.”
Just after diagnosis, a doctor told Smith to spend as much time as possible with Tyana.
Smith hesitated to speak about the hardest part of watching her daughter fight cancer – she worries about whether or not her daughter will make it through it all.
But she speaks unabashedly about her hope.
“I hope that it’ll be over soon, and that (the cancer) won’t come back,” she said. Smith adds that she knows she has to stay strong for her daughter.
“She looks up to me, I’ve got to be there for her.
As Smith stays strong and is there for her daughter, the community has stepped up to be there for Smith.
Tyana’s paternal grandparents, Smith said, have helped tremendously. Family Resource and Youth Services personnel have steered fundraising efforts, and the community at large is showing its support for the little girl with the indomitable spirit.
Toni Bailey, who owns Stepping Stones — the day care Tyana attends, organized a benefit yard sale.
Donations have come in many forms, and this weekend, Browning Automotive will hold a car wash, bake sale, cook out and yard sale in its service department and lot. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, and will feature food, music and more.
Additionally, Brownings employee Noel Franz is donating all of her Avon Campaign No. 15 proceeds to Tyana and her family.
Brewer said churches, even some small ones, have donated money to the family.
The community support, Smith said, has been unbelievable.
At a raffle held at Friday night’s Music on Main in Eminence, the winner of a $50 gas card donated the card back to the Smith family. Brewer said Friday night’s fundraising efforts alone raised $257.
Community volunteers set up an account at PBI Bank for Tyana, called the Tyana Smith Fund. Donations to the account are used for rent, car payments and utility bills.
When asked, Smith said she doesn’t need anything. She just wants to make sure her bills are paid. And there, her landlord and the business that holds the loan for her car, have been willing to work with her.
“Jo (Brewer) and them have been taking care of my car payment. that was one of my main things. I’ve got to have transportation and my rent. That’s all of my bills.”
Tyana’s medical bills, no doubt increasing by the day, are covered by the Passport Health Plan.
Community and family support help Smith to stay strong for her daughter. But Tyana herself is a source of strength and hope for Smith.
“She has good days, and when she’s up and running and flipping, I know that she’s going to be all right,” she said.
Brewer said Tyana is a special girl, and “when she’s on, she’s a character.”
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