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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.

12 Responses to “”

  1. Sophia says:

    I just read this article and was so inspired I’ve spent the last couple minutes …actually I don’t know how long…going through your blog. I don’t normally do this so I’m not even sure what’s appropriate to say. I will say this: you’ve got another perfect stranger who cares. Your story has touched a cord and tonight when I pray for my friends, family and loved ones I will add you to my list. God Bless you and Keep You Always.

  2. Andrea, my old friend. I saw your beautiful face in the newspaper and then read the horrible story about your disease that followed. I don’t know if you remember me. We hung out when you first moved to Philly from Florida. I knew your Mom from the bus and she brought me home to meet her super cool daughter.

    I ran into you a few years ago on South Street. We spoke on the phone once but then drifted back apart.

    Please know you and your family are in my prayers.

    Love,

    Juls

  3. Heather says:

    I try to read the blog at least every other day. Sometimes I don’t get around to it, others I get to stop by every day.
    As I’ve said before, I am inspired by your strength. But at the same time, I cry when I read the inevitability of your disease in your words. When you are having a bad day, I feel a sense of loss, not of you, but of the possibility of what you could have done that day to make yourself feel better and the time you missed with the ones you love because of whatever reason.
    I don’t pray, but I do light a candle for you on a regular basis. I have friends in a group of moms that I have also asked to keep you in their thoughts and keep up with you. They try to keep up, they have all offered to help me with your benefit in the coming year. It comes down to admiration of a would be friend. I look up to you, Andrea, you are a hero on so many levels.

  4. Liz Meyer says:

    Andrea
    I was diagnosed Oct. 2006 with breast cancer. Also relatively aggressive, but not inflammatory breast. My response when the doc told me ? “Well, I don’t look good in pink!” Cancer sucks in every way. Chemo sucks. I “get” the whole nausea thing—you can’t adequately describe it–it is unique to the chemo process. After my first treatment I found myself laying on the bathroom floor–couldn’t stop purging, even with meds. I felt as if I was trapped in a bad Hallmark movie. I remember asking my husband if he could “change the channel.” I am 6 mos post treatment and as cliched as it sounds–I have never felt more blessed by friends, family, and perfect strangers. I feel your pain, frustration, but more importantly, HOPE for the future. Take one day at a time. Love every minute with your family and friends. Your sense of self and your humor are the best gifts you can give to those who love you. I pray everyday for anyone struggling with the challenges of cancer. I will pray for you and your family that you will feel at peace with this journey. Bless you.

  5. A-Stubbs says:

    Dear Andrea,

    It was so good to see you today at the TLA. I hope you enjoyed the performance. It was a pleasure to play for you, and believe me, Alec put his whole heart and soul into that set, as did the rest of us. I wish you all the best, and you are in my thoughts as well as those of my family.
    Keep rocking and stay tough!!!
    MUCH love,
    A-Stubbs

  6. joshua says:

    great interview! you’re a freakin trip, andrea! way to get the word out.

    good luck to Alec and the rest at the show today!

  7. Jeremy Avellino says:

    love you lady! that was a great article. glad to hear the show went well too, you have raised some seriously talented kids! i was having a terrible day and once again, you make me feel better. God Bless you.

  8. David Fadigan says:

    I read your story in the paper a few weeks ago, and all I can say is that I sort of know what you are going through, I was just diagnosed with level 4 lymphoma/bone cancer on september 4th, 2007. I had a tumor the size of a football in my lower left backside.
    I have always had a positive attitude when it comes to life in general, but when I heard I had cancer, all that went out the window, and when I saw your story in the paper, to be honest you inspired me a bit. ya know to look forward, not backward, and to be positive.
    I will keep you in my prayers….good luck

  9. Mary Brady Begnardi says:

    Hey Andrea,
    I don’t know if you remember me and my husband Emi, we are friends of Max. We used to see you around a lot when we lived in South Philly and then we went traveling and lost touch. Max called me up the other day out of nowhere. It was great to hear from him, but then he told me about how you were sick and told me about your site. This cancer thing SUCKS!!! I love reading your words though, because you sound like the beautiful, tough, kind, funny and blunt person that I met way back when. Your kids are awesome.
    I had been thinking about you right when he called, crazy as that sounds.
    You remind me to be thankful for everything, good and bad, that comes to pass in life. Your faith, sense of humor and honesty are amazing. You know that old
    saying about how God never gives you someting you can’t handle? Damn, woman! Do you ever wish God didn’t trust you so much?! God bless you and I hope our paths cross again. You were always someone I could never forget:)

  10. Tee says:

    Hi Andrea,

    I read your article in the Sunday paper and wanted to take the time to commend you for coming out. I was diagnosed with IBC in January of 07 after giving birth in August 06 and found out through breast feeding. I am in Stage 3 but I do understand the issues of chemo, life, side affects and everything that comes with it.
    I encourage you to keep your head up, pray and aways look to friends and family for support, they are the back bones we need to get thru this battle. I am here if you need to talk or email someone who is fighting the same battle.
    May GOD continue to bless you in many ways and remember a smile from you children is the best blessing anyone can have.

    IBC Supporter

  11. Lanell says:

    I read your article at work today in the daily item paper in sunbury pa an was so touched by your story an positive attitude through all you endure. I couldnt wait to get home an read your blogs though they are many I will get through em all. I am a mom of 4 children ranging from 2 – 18 an am very close to your age so my heart sure is aching for you an my prayers are with you daily. Cancer is very rampid in my family effecting gramma, mom , an sister. So the fear of the big C is always on my mind but you have really made me look at it a whole different way ” living with it” thank you for sharing your story…u have touched many hearts

  12. Yolie says:

    Okay, I read your story today in our very archaic newspaper here in the west Texas town of El Paso and logged on to your website, having been reading your blogs for about an hour and here is the same story, only it was published a few weeks back. I can’t help but think of all the women it might have helped if it had been published here sooner, but considering our less than stellar newspaper here, I am surprised it was published at all.

    I am an RN and I don’t ever remember learning about IBC in school. I found out about it through an email that was circulating around and I was pretty shocked. There is a strong history of breast cancer in my husband’s family and so I am big on making my daughter as aware as possible – she has picked up the cause on her own, so I guess its working. IBC is an entirely different animal though and I am ready to spread the word. My husband was diagnosed with cancer last September and has had what we hope was a successful surgery since then, but it has been draining. Your spirituality and positivity through most of this is an inspiration.

    I really enjoyed what I read (blogs) tonight and will try to keep up with your fight. I am going to share your site with friends – I think it is important.

    What really strikes me though is your candor and undefeatable spirit because in the end – that is what is going to be remembered and cherished.

    God Bless you and your family…..