To rebels, her illness is a cause
“Punk Rock Mommy” fights terminal cancer.
By Michael Matza
Inquirer Staff Writer
At her home in Fishtown, Andrea Collins Smith, inveterate hipster, South Street fixture, and “Punk Rock Mommy” of the blogosphere, is speaking quickly – racing ahead like the fast-spreading cancer that will take her life. Smith, 37, the raison d’etre for a New Year’s Eve day benefit concert organized by Philadelphia’s Paul Green School of Rock to raise money for her care and her family’s support, has a rare and virulent form of the disease.
In May, two days after graduating with a psychology degree from Temple University and two days before Mother’s Day, the mother of six, whose tattoos and piercings are too numerous to count, learned she has inflammatory breast cancer.
Stage 4. Incurable, her doctors said.
Two weeks later she started chemotherapy – six rounds of caustic chemicals pumped into her body, three weeks apart.
Oct. 20: Radical surgery to remove both breasts and underarm lymph nodes.
Nov. 20: The start of radiation treatments.
This month, more trouble: A CT scan revealed cancer in two vertebrae. It wasn’t there in September’s tests.
“That’s how fast my cancer spreads,” Smith said. “That’s how aggressive this cancer is.”
Rallying around their stricken friend in this subculture of grunge and self-styled outcasts, the region’s rockers, tattoo artists and others have come out in force.
They cook. They clean. They run errands. They drive Smith to doctor’s appointments.
There have been bingo nights. Halloween fund-raisers. Poinsettia sales. A documentary in progress about the ordeal, tentatively titled The C Word.
Two weeks ago the Bawdy Girls, a campy burlesque troupe, peeled down to pasties and G-strings in a benefit striptease.
“Those girls are awesome,” said Smith, who had to stop working because of her illness, but once held what she called “the trifecta of cool jobs”: clerk at Zipperhead; waitress at Sugar Mom’s; and office manager at the School of Rock, where students 9 to 17, including several of her own kids, learn to perform like Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper, among other legends.
As grave as the situation is, Smith has not lost her sense of humor.
“I was meaning to lose 50 pounds anyway,” she mused about chemotherapy and the accompanying nausea. “And I was looking for an excuse to smoke pot again.”
Acupuncture, actually, is how she keeps nausea at bay, but clearly she and her comrades are having fun.
Before her surgery she made three plaster casts of her breasts. She plans to offer at least one of them – decorated with “flash” by her husband, tattoo artist Kelly Smith – at a benefit auction that could also include corsets made by her friends, designers Amy and Sid Delicious.
“I think somebody who loves me should have my boobies in their bedroom,” Smith said.
A parishioner at Kensington’s Circle of Hope Church, Smith has always prayed. Since her diagnosis, she said, she has had some “funny” conversations with God.
“I’m a mother. I just graduated from college. Now I have terminal cancer. I thought you wanted more from me. Besides, it’s very cliched. Very Lifetime television,” she told God.
On a more serious note, she has come to understand that everyone’s “life is very short. None of us knows how long we have. That’s part of a plan I don’t have any information about.
“You can sit around and wonder, ‘Why me? Why me?’ But do you ask yourself that when good things happen?” she said.
There are obvious challenges that come with a terminal illness, but insights, too, said Smith. After years of studying psychology in college, she said, she seems to have jumped right over “denial” into the “acceptance” phase of the classic stages of death and dying.
When friends try to encourage her, saying she’ll probably live a long time, she cuts them short.
“See, I told you I was going to die,” is the way she plans to begin the letter she will write to be read at her funeral.
Raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Smith moved to Northeast Philadelphia with her mother and sister when she was 17 and immediately fell in with the punk and New Wave scene anchored on South Street.
In 1989 she married Tony “Jeeter” Collins, of the band the Cisco Jeeters. A year later, their son Alec was born. Then came Jesse, now 15; the twins, Asa and Tucker, now 13; and Bailey, now 10, the couple’s only girl. They divorced in 2000.
Four years later, Smith married Kelly Smith. A year ago their son, Clay, was born. Persistent soreness that developed during breast-feeding led to the discovery of her cancer.
To keep friends and family apprised of her condition, she began a Web site, punkrockmommy.org, with a dedicated following that goes well beyond that original close circle of intimates. A friend set it up for her. You could think of it as an online version of Tuesdays With Morrie, with an underground spin.
“Thank you for this blog, your strength in difficult times is inspiring,” noted one post from California. “God Bless, and know that we are all pulling for you.”
Because there is no history of cancer in Smith’s family, and her strain of the disease usually hits without early warning signs, she titled her blog “Andrea Collins Smith and the Great Cancer Swindle.”
Routinely polite, especially to elders because of a deep affection for her grandmother, Smith said she had a telling experience when she and a friend were Christmas shopping in Cherry Hill.
They came upon a massaging chair. Cool, said her friend, but who has time to sit?
“I have cancer,” Smith said, “with plenty of time to sit around.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that. That’s awwwwful!” said an older shopper who thought Smith was making light of the disease.
“You know what? It’s my cancer, and I’ll talk about it any way I want,” fired back Smith, the punk-rock mommy, still edgy after all these years.