Father of the Bridge Run faces adversity head on

October 12, 2018
Julian Smith
Julian Smith flips through a book compiled for him by friends sharing the impact he’s made on their lives. Photo by Emma Vought

Julian Smith’s familiar with racing. Just about all his life, he’s been in some kind of run for his life.

First, it was when he had rheumatic fever as a young boy at age 7. He lived near Hampton Park with his parents and three siblings. “The doctor told my father, ‘you need to get this boy in a running program.’ My father would take me out every morning to the park and say, ‘get out.’ And he’d follow me around the park in the morning. That’s how I got going.”

The habit stuck. The Charleston native kept doing it while earning a business degree at Charleston Southern University and he continued even after graduating. He found it was a great way to de-stress and bond with friends. When the Cooper River Bridge Run first got started, a friend invited him to participate, and he was hooked.

One of Smith’s first longtime jobs was to serve as director of the Wellness Center at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), a position he held for 18 years. As part of that job, he served on the board for the bridge run. He enjoyed being a part of it and helping it to be a success. Always one to travel and take on new challenges, Smith was in Oregon for a wellness conference when he looked up and Mt. Rainier caught his eye.

“I thought, ‘I’m hiking that thing,’ so I drove to Washington state and hiked up to the glacier. I walked around up there, and it was the most beautiful view.”

As he hiked down, his phone rang. It was his boss telling him he was going to be in charge of the bridge run as its director. Smith was thrilled. “I thought, ‘I can make that race great.’ I got involved right away and started making changes.’”

Having done this role since 1994, Smith said it did more than just change his life. “It became my life. I traveled all over the country representing the bridge run.” Smith went to races and marathons all over the nation and in the world. He began landing sponsorships. “I had different businesses fighting to get on the T-shirt. I had a vision for it, and it all happened, and it made me more confident in myself as a business person. I met some of the most amazing people across the country. It’s just amazing the friendships I’ve made.”

And he’s so grateful for them because his health battles didn’t end with rheumatic fever. Smith got skin cancer on his face, which he was able to get successfully treated, but then came another brush with cancer. Twelve years ago, he began having strange symptoms and felt extremely fatigued.

A friend at dinner one night asked him what was wrong with him and insisted he go and get scanned. “I could barely get through a day at work. When I got home, I just wanted to sleep, and I had really bad night sweats. Even my eyeballs felt like they were sweating.”

He followed his friend’s advice and the scan revealed in 2006 that he had two nodules in his neck. He went to see Katherine Hermayer, an endocrinologist at MUSC, who performed his biopsies. He remembers exactly where he was when he got the call about the results, on Broad Street in Charleston at the bank.

“Where are you?” she asked. Smith told her.

“When you get done, ‘Will you do me a favor and get in your car and drive straight to Hollings Cancer Center?’ You have an appointment with Dr. Day,” she said referring to surgeon Terry Day, the director of the head and neck tumor program at Hollings Cancer Center. Smith, who knew his father and aunt both had thyroid cancer, was prepared to hear some bad news. What he didn’t expect to find out, though, was that he had two kinds of thyroid cancer, follicular and papillary.

Day wanted to do surgery the next day. Smith pushed back because the bridge run was the next week. They compromised. Smith, who had stage 2 thyroid cancer, had the surgery, but then showed up for the bridge run with a big bandage on his neck. He followed up the surgery with radioactive iodine treatment.

New challenge

“I felt so bad when I had thyroid cancer. I just kept fighting it. I’m a fighter, and I fought it the whole way. I was losing so much weight. I lost 70 pounds. Some days I’d eat 12 yogurts just to gain weight.”

As Smith recalls the nightmare, he shares how hard it was on his family. Close to his sibling and mother, who’s now 92, he remembers he hated putting them through the stress of the illness.

That’s why when he started having odd symptoms again this year, he kept it to himself at first. He noticed he was having dizzy spells and would stagger when he walked causing some people to think he was drinking.

“I would stand up, and the room would start spinning like a top. I was holding on to whatever I could hold onto.” His internist insisted he get an MRI.

Doctors found a lesion on his brain and swelling. He was referred to neuro-surgeon Alex Vandergrift and neuro-oncologist David Cachia, who helped explained he had a type of brain tumor called glioblastoma, the same type that Sen. John McCain had. Smith’s doctors worked on developing a treatment plan for him.

For a while, Smith kept the news to himself. He struggled to wrap his mind around the diagnosis. He thought of the bridge run that was just two months away.

“I was devastated when I found out the second (actually third) time that I had cancer,” he said.

He began bargaining and somewhat joking with his doctors.

“I told them, ‘this is my money maker – this face. This is what has made me money. I’ve taken very good care of this body, and the thought of taking chemo, kills me. I told them, ‘No, you can’t do this to me.’”

Smith decided to have his surgery May 4 and opted for an aggressive treatment plan. He has had six weeks of radiation together with chemotherapy. While continuing chemotherapy, he  is also using the  Optune device. This is a  cap he wears on his head that generates an alternating electrical field that stops or slows the growth of cancer cells.

Smith said he’s been so touched by the outpouring of support from friends and his care team at Hollings, including his radiation oncologist Joseph Jenrette. “Dr. Jenrette and his team have been so awesome. I saw them every day for a while, and they became like part of my family. Dr. Jenrette and Dr. Cachia really helped me through a really rough time.”

It’s one reason he is creating a glioblastoma fund for cancer research and hosting a kick-off reception at Hollings Cancer Center, Thursday, Oct. 18, at 5:30 p.m. The idea came his friend Pam Hartley, who does marketing for the bridge run. Knowing that she’s the queen of positive, Smith told her that he wanted to turn his condition from a negative to a positive. She suggested the idea of a legacy film and hosting an event to raise funds to fight this type of cancer.

Smith loved the idea and wanted it to be a way to spotlight and raise funds for glioblastoma research. And, in true bridge run style, he decided there had to be a T-shirt. It sports the slogan:  Never Quit Killing It — Cancer.

“I don’t want this to be about me. I want it to be about glioblastoma and finding a cure. I want it to be about how this horrible thing comes to people.”

Janis Newton, director of MUSC’s Wellness Center, said she’s not surprised at all that Smith wanted to start this fund. She’s known Smith 30 years, and it fits his generous heart. Known by many as the “father of the bridge run,” Smith has helped it become one of the largest and most successful 10Ks in the country. What she loves most about him most, though, is how he never loses focus of the people he serves.

“Julian is generous, compassionate, authentic and honest, innovative, reliable and a beautiful soul. He’s very unique,” she said. “Julian is a fighter and will beat this cancer. He immediately took on the most positive mindset, has enormous faith, a willingness to share his story and give back by raising money. He has kept a special connection to his many friends and close family and has made this community a better place.”

A case in point is the health and wellness expo he started years ago as part of the bridge run.

“He re-invented it the last two years, and it has flourished into a huge community wellness resource. The bridge run is the biggest event contributor to community health and wellness. Anyone, any age can participate and the focus it creates on preparation and year-round fitness is invaluable to Charleston.”

Newton said she treasures the time they spend together.

“Julian is the most huggable, loveable and fun person ever. He always brings a smile to my face and is the best person to have a laugh attack with. Julian is not only generous with financial donations and fundraising, but he is generous in his heart and giving of himself to others.  I don’t know anyone else like Julian Smith, and I am proud and honored to have him as a friend.”

Smith, 67, said the friends opening up their hearts to tell him these kinds of sentiments make all the difference to him. “I want people to come and learn about glioblastoma, and I want them to help me find a cure for it. I’m a fighter. I have so many good friends. Every day I have friends checking on me, saying they are praying for me and saying the sweetest things. All of that helps.”

It helps him stay committed to the fight.

“I kicked cancer once before. If anybody can do it, I can. I have a great positive attitude about it. I’ve read the statistics, and it’s not good, but I’m going to do everything I can. I’m going to give it a good run.”