Inspiring 21-year-old battling terminal brain cancer defies odds, graduates college
At 21 years old, Andy Smith has endured and accomplished more than many people his age. When Andy graduated from high school in the spring of 2020, he was voted most athletic, was a four-time letterman, served on the Leadership Team and was loved by his peers. That fall, he enrolled in Colorado Mesa University (CMU) and joined a semi-pro rugby team. His goal was to become a sports psychologist and work with New Zealand’s professional rugby team.
Within a couple of months, Andy began experiencing headaches and was in a lot of pain, so his parents took him to St. Mary’s Medical Center for an MRI. They discovered a peach-sized tumor resting on his brain stem under his cerebellum. Andy was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma type 4, a form of brain cancer that typically affects younger children. He was immediately flown to Denver to undergo surgery.
“Andy disengaged from any type of fear,” said Lisa Smith, Andy’s mother. “He knew the surgery was risky, but he wanted to be as happy and comfortable as he could be. That’s the type of person he is.”
“When I found out I had a tumor, I didn’t necessarily put two and two together that it could be cancerous or kill me,” said Andy. “I put it in my head that it’s a part of me now, so I guess it’s deserving of a name. I named my tumor Benji.”
The doctors were able to remove Benji, but the surgery left Andy paralyzed on his left side. He spent the next 52 days at Children’s Hospital Colorado. He then went back to St. Mary’s and spent the next year undergoing 15 radiation treatments, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and physical, occupational and speech therapy. Eventually, he learned to walk again.
The St. Mary’s Foundation utilized Sister Michael Patient Compassion Funds to support Andy's trip for a clinical trial at Children's Hospital in July 2023. They also provided funding for him and his family to stay in a hotel for nine days while he was there undergoing treatment.
Andy was in remission for two months before the cancer returned and spread to his spine. He began the clinical trial and three types of chemotherapy, but when the treatments began drastically affecting his memory, he chose to stop. Through it all, he lived in his own apartment with a roommate and attended classes at CMU. He was determined to graduate college.
“I did it when everyone told me I couldn’t, and I did it all with cancer,” said Andy. “I don’t like being underestimated. I was told by people with PhDs that I wouldn’t be able to go to college while undergoing treatment, but I graduated with a 4.0. I believe there’s a first for everything and I thought that I could be that first.”
“We knew it was a risk when Andy went in for surgery three years ago,” Lisa said. “Every day since then has been a gift. He is the most determined person I know. He returned to school and made the President’s List and Dean’s List and worked at the university during treatment. He persevered through so many struggles and always did so with joy and a smile on his face.”
While at CMU, Andy met his mentor, MacKenzie Lewis, or Mac as he calls her. She was his rugby coach and worked in the Admissions Office. Andy began working with her and mentoring students by teaching them good study habits as a peer coach. He gave tours to prospective students and loved taking them to Houston Hall.
“It’s CMU’s oldest building on campus,” Andy said. “It’s refurbished but has its original tiling and it’s a really special place because every Maverick has walked on those floors. I love sharing that history. It’s also where the psychology building is, and I always knew I wanted to be a counselor.”
After years of treatment and many second opinions, Andy was told that no other medical intervention could be done, and he recently entered comfort care. His mom called Mac to let her know his prognosis and Mac decided they were going to surprise him with his college degree. Andy’s primary nurse at St. Mary’s, Michelle Paraday Bibeau, who Andy’s mom said is like family, helped organize the celebration at the hospital, along with Sara Reim.
“It was God’s doing that we were able to get all of our family and Andy’s friends there with an hour’s notice,” said Lisa.
The room was full of St. Mary’s staff, family and friends. Andy’s sister presented him with his cap and gown and the president of CMU attended to personally hand Andy his diploma and congratulate him on the incredible work he had done. He was named a pillar for his virtues and resilience and for demonstrating what it means to be a Maverick.
“The graduation ceremony was incredible, and I was very proud to put the ceremonious clothes on because I’ve worked so hard to get here,” said Andy. “But I’m not done. If I’m able to, I’d still like to be able to finish my last semester. I’m an example that giving up is always an option but it’s never a choice. I took the advice my parents gave me to enjoy life because it truly is a gift. I always say the best way to wake up in the morning is to look out to the East to see the sun. No matter what happened yesterday, it’s a new day. My time is limited, so I choose to enjoy my time. I can only promise this moment right now.”
Watch Andy's video, Making Mavericks from Colorado Mesa University.