I am 39.

Health activist and patient, Dawn S. Smith, celebrates her birthday by reflecting at what she accomplished living while brain tumor.

Health activist and patient, Dawn S. Smith, celebrates her birthday by reflecting at what she accomplished while living with a brain tumor.

I am 39.

I am surviving two brain tumors.

I am fighting for my life and yours.

I am most wonderful.

Off The Sidelines

"I"m Still Here" witten into sand in beach.

Dawn Smith writes “I am still here” into sand on the beach after radiation treatment for her brain tumor.

They say the sidelines are where gladiators go to rest.
Some of us can race back on the field.
The rest of us warriors must ride the pine.

Rest. It is a marathon, not a sprint, they tell us.

Beware of gladiators prowling on the sidelines.
While the world eyes the battle on the field,
we soldiers find energy in our rest

Yes. Solders on the sidelines hunger for ground.

As the world whizzes pass, we gain life inch by inch.
Our movement is steady against the wind,
Our cause, sure. The field is ours today.

This field is ours today.

How The King’s Speech Screenwriter David Seidler Emancipated Me

Dawn enjoying her freedom

Moments of liberation don’t happen often. Every now and then, someone says something that emancipates you from destructive thoughts. The CNN report on screenwriter, David Seidler, who won the Oscar for The King’s Speech, does not just inspire me. It sets me free.

Hollywood notoriously places an expiration date on its talent. Screenwriters are no exception. Scribes who do not make a splash in the industry right out of film school climb an uphill battle be a working screenwriter. This deadline loomed in my mind, often ticking louder than my biological clock. When I received a brain tumor diagnosis (and then another), the sunset of my writing career was all I could think of.

Perhaps pain or stubbornness kept me from seeing the inevitable. I ignored the complications of juggling a brain tumor (and then another) and a writing career at first. I swallowed my tears and my pride when my play made it to Hollywood, but I could not go.

As long as I was writing, I was fighting. I was in control.

But the brain tumor (and then another) began to tug on my mind, body and spirit. And the public fight against my health insurance company wore me down further. Letters to my former health insurance company and politicians replaced screenplays, and eventually even paid writing assignments.

Looking at my laptop, I’d curse myself a failure for forgetting words. The electric shock pain from my brain tumors was (and is) so excruciating I not drag myself to bathroom, much less muster up the creativity to be a writer. I’d contemplate the value of a life with brain tumors that my former boss called my “shortcomings.”

I’d helped others deal with their circumstances with my words, but the moment the brain tumors threatened my writing—my words—I could no longer deal.

And then David Seidler gave me freedom.

After wrestling with stuttering for years, he wisely decided not to confront it with paper and pen so soon after conquering it. The 73-year-old screenwriter stated the mind requires time to heal from the battle—to mature, to write about it objectively.

It’s smart advice for any writer hoping to avoid the trap of melodramatic writing. But it’s a powerful rule for health activists who can easily collapse under the weight of their stories.

David Seidler’s patience struck me more. Most writers recognize the potential literary value of their battles, especially those cognizant of the expiration date Hollywood places on talent. The media is dubbing David Seidler a late bloomer. He reminds me not to try to outrun my illness, only to crumple under the weight of false deadlines.

He got his Oscar on time. Whatever destiny awaits me is not going to match the timelines and bucket lists I scribbled out in college. I must begrudgingly trust God’s divine plan just the same.

I will still cry when I have an idea that my brain tumors won’t let me type. But if my writing is a God-given talent, I now know that no illness can hold me back from seeing my words in the fullness of their destiny.

My new freedom comes in knowing that all things come in due time…right on time.

Message to My Mountain, My Brain Tumor

Message to My Mountain, My Brain Tumor

I wanted to kiss you good riddance, Mountain, but I could not find the strength nor words.

I guess that makes you feel powerful.

What you don’t know is every time you knock me down or wear me out, I get back up again…and again, whether I believe in myself (or my health) or not.

So throw your pain at me.
Strip me of my health, career and friends.
I will soar phoenix-like or claw my back before you rejoice in your handiwork.

If you want the truth, Mountain, I feel a dose of helpless serenity knowing that you are neither friend nor foe. You are just “is.”

You are a matter of life and death sitting, shocking and kneading the life out of me for no damn reason. I cling to you, Mountain, to calm my heart from cruel philosophers who say your presence is written in Heavens or the stars. You, Mountain, are in God’s hands.

As long as you are what you are, Mountain, I have to be what I am…strong.

Knock me down, Mountain, my brain tumor, if that makes you feel powerful. Tomorrow, I’ll just get back up again…and again.

Love Heals. Are Your Friends Doing It?

I braved my symptoms today to pose a simple question: If love heals, are your friends doing it? It is no coincidence that the ABC News study discussing the healing power of friendship came out so close to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Everyday acts of kindness — no matter how small — have a healing effect on those facing health care battles.  Life becomes more enriching when you focus on healthy friendships, instead of people who take up space and energy.

Please pardon the appearance of my friend, SavannahWhite, who is always worth my energy.

Elizabeth Edwards & the Person in the Casket

Much has been said about how Elizabeth Edwards advanced the cause for health care for every American — how she met adversity with matchless grace and dignity.

But family members do not mourn through the lens of politics.

Seven years ago, President Bill Clinton stood over the casket of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson inside the Atlanta Civic Center. Politicians preached to the choir of Atlantans that the only way to honor the lion of the new south was to attach Jackson’s name to the airport he made a global success. With Mayor Jackson’s grieving family members behind him, President Clinton reminded mourners why they were present.

A man was in the casket. Atlantans were mourning someone’s husband, someone’s father, someone’s friend.

When a light such as Elizabeth Edwards dims (only to shine in the next world), family members feel the loss more. The person in the casket is not a health care advocate, creature of politics or an embattled wife. She is a mother and, yes, still someone’s wife and a friend.

Want Good Health Insurance? Run for Congress.

Politician Pushing Healthcare

The freshman congressman balked at the lapse in health care coverage. After all, someone who works hard should reap the rewards of their labors. Any lapse in health care coverage — even if it is just for one month — is a risk no American should take.

This story isn’t the struggle of a politician fighting on behalf of a constituent. It’s the stance of Congressman-elect Andy Harris, who ran on repealing health care reform. The incoming congressman inquired during his freshman orientation about the gap between the start of his Congressional term and the government-subsidized health insurance available to members of Congress.

Democrats are seizing the opportunity. Democrats in the House — Joe Crowley, Donna Edwards, Tim Ryan and Linda Sanchez — are challenging GOP Representatives to align campaign rhetoric with action by dumping their government-subsidized health insurance. In a “Drop It or Stop It” ad (below), Americans United for Change is urging GOP members to drop their health care plans or stop threats to repeal health care reform.

The problem is Republicans and Democrats with the loudest voices often have the greatest access to health insurance.

They cling to their own government-subsidized health insurance, and refuse to give it up to prove the merits of the free market system or the public option. Their constituents must carry the cross. Republicans preach the need to carry the load for the sake of “our children,” and forget that their parents (and many children) are languishing by the wayside in the meantime. Democrats — seeking perfect health care reform — are often willing to allow millions of uninsured and underinsured flounder to prove a point.

On the eve of canceling my enrollment in the federal high-risk insurance pool, I can attest that neither Republican nor Democrat’s rhetoric or deeds meet the needs of everyday Americans. Deeds are bound by theatrical rhetoric. While Congressman-elect Andy Harris benefits from his government-subsidized health insurance, he will justify keeping that same plan from the people he serves. Across the country, Americans will question if politicians should be responsible for such a personal decision.

Who Do Progressives Punish When They Don’t Vote?


Voters are marching to the polls to send a message in the midterm election. That message, according to polls and pundits, is an angst rooted in social issues and the economy. A narrative has frequent play in the 24-hour news cycle: Where is the enthusiasm from progressives who were fired up during the 2008 presidential campaign?

The enthusiasm gap between progressives and conservatives is evident on comment boards, with many potential voters expressing their discontent for the Obama Administration coming up short on health care reform, financial reform and other legislation. Progressives’ grumblings are not analogous to the over hyped “civil war” of our conservative friends. These progressives are threatening not to vote, to sit on the sidelines.

Progressives or conservatives aching for change can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. And, with one in seven Americans living in poverty, chances are that person aching for change is you or someone you know.

Thanks to many of you, health insurance companies can no longer drop you from your policy without proving fraud. Parents can no longer feel the sting of health insurance companies denying coverage to their children because of a pre-existing condition. Young adults can stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until they are 26. And millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions can finally receive health care with a state or federal high risk insurance pool.

Health reform is not perfect. Anthem Blue Cross, Aetna and other health insurance companies announced their plans to drop child-only insurance policies in several states. Americans stand to lose more (not to mention the opportunity to fight back) if sideliners don’t vote.

Who do progressives punish when they don’t vote? It is not politicians with their secured retirement. Perhaps these sideliners can afford to sit this election out because their lives are perfect. At least 40 million Americans’ lives are not.

Civil rights leaders did not brave the movement because they were presented with the perfect politicians, conditions and laws. They challenged an imperfect system, and made it better. I did not embark on the MoveOn-Stand with Dawn campaign for the “you go girls” and external support that would disappear as quickly as my health insurance. I participated to discuss the health care crisis with stories behind the statistics. I did not anticipate that my own symptoms would worsen in the following months. It takes courage to do your part, no matter how small, to perfect a union, and this courage does not come from political parties, PACs or presidents.

Am I encouraging sideliners to vote to toe the line? No.

Don’t vote to align yourself with progressives or conservatives. Vote because of the social issues or financial concerns that keep you awake at night. Vote in the spirit of civil rights leaders who never waited on the sidelines. They knew every vote and every action had the potential to inch this country toward a more perfect union. Every vote and every action was a message with weight.

Who Needs Civility in the Health Care Debate?

Civility in Health care Reform

Beltway Insiders fling political jargon such as “dead on arrival” with ease. When applied to the health care reform debate, benign jargon and posturing can sting those with the greatest stake in the fight.

“Dead on arrival,” has its role in political theater. Important voices are upstaged by congressmen hoisting plump babies to make a point, lawmakers congratulating themselves for winning one round and conservative and progressive organizations parading human cause célèbres before the public. In the wings, doctors, nurses, patients and caregivers wait to be heard.

Hard-working public servants and public figures, please consider this plea for civility. For some of us, this is not just a campaign or an opportunity to make history.

Perhaps it’s the recognition of these high stakes that allows my conservative and progressive family and friends to have conversations about health care reform that do not erupt into three ring circuses. Our passions run deep and the chasm between our views is wide. Every conversation is free of sound bite worthy catchphrases. We always both walk away smarter, and with an appreciation of the other side’s point of view.

I wish Beltway Insiders would adopt the same mentality because demonizing the right or the left will not get us the health care reform we seek. And, while seemingly benign, “dead on arrival” is political jargon that is too painful to hear.

Something More Beautiful: A Brain Tumor Prompts a Search for a Writer’s Better Self

I sensed that bad news was coming by the way the doctor and nurse entered the room. My heart still raced from the twenty-minute dash from my office. Now, the exam room’s white walls cave in on me as I wait on someone, anyone, to deliver my results. My doctor, speaking in an unusually measured tone, finally says, “There is an abnormality on your MRI.” I forget how to speak. I forget how to breathe. My silence permits the doctor to elaborate on the possibilities of a brain tumor, aneurysm, infection or multiple sclerosis. I must be crying because the nurse hands me a wad of tissues. My doctor begs me to remain calm knowing that his request is in vain. How could I? There was something foreign on my brain and I could not get it off my mind… literally.

I call my mother, hours away in Kentucky, and relay my doctors’ instructions to have someone look after me. She, being a perfect mother, announces that she will drive down tomorrow. Being an okay daughter, I hustle to the grocery store as I always do when she visits. I walk down the aisles and my full-figured frame seems dwarfed by the freezers. The entire world becomes so large and it engulfs me in its folds.

No sooner than my mom’s arrival, my doctors admit me to the hospital. We pass the time reading the newspaper. My mother had long considered moving back to Atlanta. The situation makes her choice an easy one. In between what seems like a million needle pricks and MRIs, she combs through the classifieds for a job. A listing catches her eye. My employer is looking for a bright, driven professional to do my job. I want to kick and scream, but the EKG wires constrain me. It is a good thing. If I do have an aneurysm, too much stress is deadly.

I return home and start the agonizing process of telling friends and family. Some freak out. Others pepper me with questions for which I do not have an answer.

No, I do not know what “it” is.

Yes, I prayed about it.

No, I do not know if I am going to die.

The silence that follows is worse. My phone rings less and less. Friends that would race to accompany me to exclusive parties or film premiers mysteriously go missing. If they do call, the topic of my health does not enter the conversation. To them, I am merely on vacation – a Dawn on sabbatical set to return another day. I know better. I am stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with my mother with no job, no visible friends and something on my mind that is wrecking havoc on my body.

I want to receive an awakening that makes life’s nectar sweeter. Instead, the solitude forces me to say good-bye to myself. The social butterfly juggling a million projects had to go. Left in her place is a shell ready for filling. Faith, already in abundance, increases. Dreams surpass the desire to just get by. Where there was bitterness, forgiveness prevails. My ability to create things from nothing becomes the metaphor for my life. Stripped down to nothing, I have the awesome responsibility of rebuilding myself into something better.

Writing becomes a mighty weapon. The duo of pen and paper effortlessly cuts through the comments, questions and the loneliness. I suddenly realize that this malady is one of the best things to happen to me. Somewhere in the midst of the pain and symptoms, is a catalyst pushing me to live better.

I write vigorously. With each sentence, I gain a better understanding of myself. My choreoplay debuts in Los Angeles. When my heart sinks because I am not well enough to see it, I write. When film projects fall through due to my lack of strength, I write. Throughout the misdiagnosis and false starts to treatment, I write. Even when I discover that this spot on my brain is a rare and incurable tumor, I write.

The oddity of it all is that I have been fighting to keep “me” in tact. I mourn the Dawn that was, so ignorant of the Dawn that can be. My perceived value diminishes every time I use a wheelchair or walker. In moments like these, I look at my mother’s houseplants. I study the care she takes in cutting off the dead stems. Something, more beautiful, blooms in their place. I cannot help but to wonder, if the same could go for me. So, I say “good-bye” to myself and “hello” to a stronger me. It might be a wounded me, but it’s a better me.