The Battle Within the Battle

Cancer Drugs Caused Weight Gain, but Bariatric Surgery Restored Her Health


Rhonda Smith is feeling great these days. She’s in great health, eating right, getting regular exercise, and savoring life in a new way after an arduous battle. 

In 2005, at the age of 27, Smith visited her doctor because she was having trouble keeping food down. She was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Two years later, the cancer had metastasized, and she was diagnosed with a rare type of bone cancer.

“At first, I thought that I had just twisted my knee because it swelled up real quick, and it was tender,” says Smith, a Lakeland resident. “So I went to the doctor and he told me to stay off of it for two weeks. Well, when I went back, it was even bigger. So they sent me to an oncologist who did some tests and found out that I had fibrosarcoma.”

Fibrosarcoma is a type of malignant tumor that begins in the connective fibrous tissue located at the ends of the long bones, then spreads to nearby soft tissues. 

“I fought it with chemo for a while and was put on a bunch of medications, including steroids, that made me gain a lot of weight,” says Smith of her battle with bone cancer.

For seven years, Smith fought the bone cancer with chemotherapy. When she had exhausted all of the options that the oncology team in her home state of Ohio could provide for her, all that was left to try was an experimental proton treatment that was only available in Texas and Florida. 

“So I moved down here to Florida, and started a new treatment, a trial program called proton therapy,” Smith says.

Proton therapy, also called proton beam therapy or proton radiation, is a treatment for advanced cancers in adults. It differs from traditional radiation by delivering a beam of protons, positively charged subatomic particles found in an atom’s nucleus, to a tumor instead of a beam of photons as X-rays, packets of electromagnetic energy that emanate from the electron cloud surrounding an atom. 

Both protons and photons irreparably damage the DNA of cancer cells, thereby rendering those cells unable to repair or copy themselves, effectively killing them. The benefit of using proton therapy rather than traditional X-ray radiation is that the photons in an X-ray travel through cancerous tissue and damage healthy cells as they exit. Protons stop at the tumor, causing significantly less damage to a patient’s healthy cells.

Proton therapy is about as effective as traditional radiation when it comes to successfully treating a patient’s cancer. In Smith’s case, her bone cancer went into remission after the proton therapy. That’s when a new struggle began for her. 

Smith recalls how she felt physically after the cancer was taken care of, “After I got into remission, I started trying all these weight loss things to try to get my weight back under control because I had developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, my joints hurt, I didn’t want to get out of my chair. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was just miserable.” 

That’s when a co-worker recommended that she go for a consultation with a BayCare bariatric surgeon. Frustrated with the lack of success she was finding with other methods of losing weight, Smith visited Dr. Clinton Hall, BayCare’s Bariatric Program Medical Director. 

“When I had my first appointment with Dr. Hall,” recalls Smith, “he basically told me that if I had the surgery, not only could it take me off all my medications, it could also keep the cancer from coming back 80 percent.” 

That was the clincher for her. A family history of stomach cancer gave Smith good reason to want to dramatically reduce her risk. She had already lost a grandfather and an aunt to the disease. Both had surgery to remove the cancer, but unfortunately it spread. This made Smith very reluctant to go the surgical route when faced with the same diagnosis. She opted for chemotherapy instead, but the cancer still spread to her bones.

Prior to her bout with cancer, Smith lived a fairly healthy lifestyle. 

“I walked every day, three miles,” she recalls. “I haven’t ever really eaten very unhealthy, but I didn’t keep track of what I eat, either. I’m not a big sweets eater. I don’t eat a lot of junk food.”

The cancer treatments and medications made Smith feel hungry all of the time, especially craving carbohydrates, and she ended up putting on weight. When she looked into the surgery, her weight had peaked at 261 pounds. Since having the bariatric procedure performed last May, Smith is down to 130 pounds. It takes about a year after the surgery for a patient’s weight loss to stabilize, so Smith is still in the process of losing weight. 

Smith is now on a high-protein diet plan and retraining herself to eat smaller meals more frequently, rather than the three square meals a day that has long been a standard for most Americans. She’s been walking regularly again, and even joined a gym recently. Three days a week, Smith heads to the gym to do strength and muscle training. 

“I have a lot more energy, so I get a lot more stuff done,” Smith says. “My house is immaculate now because everything I see, I just do it now, where before I never had the energy to do that. I feel amazing compared to where I was before.”

Accessibility Toolbar