All it seemed to be was a normal bump on his groin TJ Smink thought, maybe a hernia.
Smink always credited himself as a pretty healthy guy. Being a Shippensburg University alumnus, Smink was a regular at SU’s Seth Grove Stadium, anchoring the center position in 21 starts for head coach Mark Maciejewski’s Raiders’ teams from 2012 to 2015. Yes, he had to forgo his final year of eligibility in 2016 due to injury, but he was a frequent weightlifter, ensuring he kept fit.
In November 2019, after noticing the bump in his groin area, Smink developed lingering back pain. He would shiver constantly, brought on by numbness in his feet and hands and coping with sweats at night when he went to sleep. He went from visiting his chiropractor from once to twice a week.
Nothing seemed to alleviate the pain. He knew something was not right, but he said he figured it was from all the years on the gridiron.
“I found myself making excuses for a lot of symptoms that did come up,” Smink said. “I told myself that it was a hernia and didn’t really think much of it. I stopped heavy lifting, my leg squats, stuff like that.”
“I strictly moved to upper body [workouts], hoping that it would go down. Turns out that wasn’t the case,” he recalled.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, Smink — surrounded by family and friends at a party — received the call of his official diagnosis: Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the of the lymphatic system.
But after his taxing battle, Smink is hoping to give back to the ones who may not be as lucky as him. Smink is a nominee for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Man of the Year Award, raising awareness and money for the foundation through his Man of the Year campaign.
It couldn’t be cancer
Smink had traveled to Orchard Park, New York, in December 2019 with his uncles for a Buffalo Bills game. At the time, he was still experiencing the back pain, shivers and night sweats. However, while tailgating, Smink glanced at his Fitbit, noticing a resting heart rate of 120 beats per minute.
Smink passed around the Fitbit, thinking there was a malfunction of some sort. But to his surprise, all the other readings came back normal. This is when his concern began to mount.
When he returned home Monday, he immediately went to a medical clinic where he was tested for the flu, the results coming back negative. He was prescribed a steroid to slow down his heart rate which did the trick for a couple days. By Thursday, he made it all but 15 minutes at work.
“My girlfriend is an overnight ICU nurse down in Delaware, so I drove to her place,” Smink said. “She works 12-hour shifts, so I felt horrible going to her. But I went to her place and she was like, ‘we need to go to the hospital.’”
At the hospital, Smink received a CT scan and went through rounds of testing, including tests for mononucleosis, hyperthyroidism and a pulmonary embolism, all yielding negative results. That left two possibilities: A virus that could not be detected at the hospital or cancer.
“That was the first time that I had ever heard the word cancer even be a possibility,” Smink said.
“I’m a person that likes being in control. I like knowing what’s going to happen,” Smink said. “I like being able to, not necessarily see what’s coming, but at the same time I like talking to people and finding out the best way to go about things.”
With cancer, that was not exactly a choice. However, Smink made sure to make the most of it, trying to prepare himself in anyway possible.
Smink reached out to a handful of cancer survivors, to hear their stories — to hear what they endured.
After multiple conversations, Smink decided he would control the controllable. If there were certain things he thought cancer was going to take from him, he was going to take them first before cancer even got the chance, like his hair.
But the one thing Smink refused to let cancer take: his positive attitude.
Staying positive not only helped motivate himself but the people around him, Smink said. He wanted to remain strong for his loved ones. He wanted to remain optimistic despite being dealt with a fight for his life.
“I found out really quickly that that helped motivate the people around me, to be the best that they could be,” he said. “But at the same time too, it made me feel better about myself and made me feel better about my outcome as well.”
Outside of his immediate family, Smink received an overwhelming amount of support. One of his best friends set up a GoFundMe page to aid Smink with his medical costs. The page would exceed well over 400 donors.
Smink works with the Major League Soccer (MLS) club the Philadelphia Union. His coworkers made T-shirts saying “Smink Strong” during his battle. The T-shirt fundraiser soared to nearly $30,000.
“I wasn’t expecting that kind of support. I wasn’t asking for that kind of support,” Smink said. “But it was absolutely incredible to see the support that I did have behind me.”
But the support continued to roll in. Eventually, at a time when it was most needed.
Smink began his six-month chemotherapy treatments in January 2020, 11 days after his diagnosis, receiving treatments every other Friday. That process became more harrowing when the unforgiving coronavirus pandemic made its appearance in March.
Smink said the remaining three and a half months of his treatment were done alone, as visitors were limited. However, his dad took off from work every Friday he had treatments, driving Smink to his appointments and waiting in the parking lot.
And June 12, his last chemotherapy treatment, Smink was welcomed home with a parade. The final diagnosis: 100% cancer free.
In 2020, Smink was presented the chance to help a colleague, Devin DiNofa, who was running for the LLS Man of the Year. DiNofa wanted to donate all the proceeds to Smink.
However, Smink refused to accept the money. He wanted the money to go to someone who was in dire need of it. Someone who had it harder.
Following the 2020 campaign, they came back to Smink, nominating him for the 2021 LLS Man of the Year. Smink did not hesitate at the opportunity, as his Man of the Year campaign kicked off March 28. He built a campaign team that is willing to be part of something bigger, a team itching to give back.
“You never realize how cancer has really touched someone until you actually talk to them about it,” Smink said. “So, there are people on my team where they have husbands who ended up having myeloma. There are people I know that unfortunately have lost loved ones to cancer that are a part of this team.
“But all these people are coming together for a common cause, and it’s to be a part of the reason why cancer won’t be something someday. And that’s my end goal. We’re not going to cure cancer, not just my organization. But at the same time, I want us to be a darn good reason why we’ll be part of the cure someday.”
For those who wish to make a contribution to Smink’s LLS Man of the Year campaign, they can visit pages.lls.org/mwoy/epa/philly21/tsmink.