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Mother's Day 2017

Leah Still’s mom talks strength and endurance during difficult times

Channing Smythe celebrates her cancer survivor’s 7th birthday right before Mother’s Day

Last weekend, young Leah Still, daughter of NFL defensive lineman Devon Still, celebrated her 7th birthday. It is also the week leading up to Mother’s Day, and her mother, Channing Smythe, is just like any other single mother who wants the best for her children.

The 28-year-old proud “East Coast Girl” is all about love, motherhood and family, and she is dedicated to helping others like those who have helped her become more than just Leah’s mom.

Smythe has stayed out of the spotlight by choice, with the blessing of her 92-year-old grandmother. “That’s my baby,” Smythe said as she chatted for nearly one hour outside of her Baltimore residence. “As my grandmother watched everything on TV with Leah and her father, she simply told me to remain behind the scenes.”

With Leah now cancer-free for two years, Smythe believes it is time to share her story of raising Leah and her son, Perez, as well as a work-life balance that every mother can relate to.

Smythe and Devon met as students at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware, and conceived Leah a few years later. Leah was born a healthy child on May 6, 2010, but at age 4 she started having health problems that were initially thought to be just a stomach virus.

“When Leah was being tested and examined, the doctors said that her ailments could have been one of six or seven different things, with cancer being at the bottom of that list,” Smythe said.

Of course, no parent wants to think of the worst-case scenario, but Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer. As devastating as this news was, Smythe did not have to go far at all to receive a strong support system. Family, friends and even complete strangers showed their love.

The toughest thing for Smythe, though, may have been where to live during Leah’s medical stays that began at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, and on to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“At the time, Devon was playing for the Bengals and he wanted us to move to Cincinnati, but my support was here [in the Philadelphia area],” Smythe explained. “I had no friends or family in Cincinnati. It would have been just me, along with Devon and his wife.”

Smythe also mentioned how difficult it was to work while Leah was in and out of the hospital, on top of being pregnant with Perez.

Leah Still and her mother, Channing Smythe, visit Fox 29’s Good Day at Fox 29 Studio on Sept. 20, 2016, in Philadelphia.

Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

“I was an assistant director at a day care center at the time, doing a lot of the administrative work, but once Leah’s dad decided to continue playing football I had to be there for my child by taking a lot of sick time. Even now, it’s still difficult to work,” Smythe said.

Smythe endured many experiences during Leah’s battle with cancer, inspiring her to start the Leah Still Foundation.

“It was a challenge to buy food, paying bills and for parking,” Smythe said. “After talking to a hospital social worker to help with those things, I decided to launch the foundation and do for other families I know that may have an even tougher time keeping up with bills than I did.”

She echoed her mission to align with her struggles, as it states on the foundation’s website:

“It is our impassioned desire to be able to enhance the lives of children diagnosed with cancer by providing support and guidance for their families. Our ultimate goal is to be a resource for families to ease some of the burdens caused by having a child with cancer.”

Since launching the foundation in August 2014, the feedback has been tremendous.

“I’ve even had siblings of young cancer patients reach out to us. That’s the most fun, sharing the stories,” Smythe said. “We have served other families by having a couple of food and toy drives. However, we haven’t been able to generate as much funds as we would like, and the marketing, which my mother handles, are also a factor with costs.”

Smythe said the hardest part of her journey was watching Leah change emotionally and physically as she went through the chemotherapy and radiation, and being pregnant with Perez.

“I felt the world was crashing down on me after the diagnosis,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. Dealing with Leah having cancer was much different from a grandparent suffering. I felt helpless because she was so young and I wanted to trade places with her. That said, I had to prepare myself, focus, not stress, and keep my faith.”

Smythe said other mothers dealing with similar struggles often reach out to her for advice.

“I tell other moms to keep pushing, be strong, be there for your child, believe in your faith,” she explained. “Research is also key to prevention when it comes to your child’s diet and intake, and following the doctor’s orders. I tried as much as possible to keep a normal life for Leah by taking her skating, trips to the park, going to the movies and out to eat. She did have to wear a mask at times, though, which prevented normal trips to places like the mall.”

Throughout Leah’s battle, Smythe has remained positive and has been inspired by her daughter.

“Leah always tells me that I’m a good mom and I do a good job. It’s inspiring that she stays strong and smiles through it all and says she’ll bounce back. She’s so smart for her age,” she tearfully explained. “Leah is very protective of her brother, and vice versa. She loves him very much, although she won’t let him play with her toys and says he can be annoying at times.

“SixTwo represents so many important dates and milestones in my children’s lives,” Smythe said. “I’ve been passionate about design since I was a little girl sitting in my bedroom drawing blueprints for clothes, homes, etc. I still have those blueprints around somewhere. I’m looking to relaunch my clothing line by the end of 2017. I tried to launch it previously but just didn’t have the time. Currently, you can go to my website, sixtwointeriors.com, where I specialize in interior decorating and home organization/cleaning and wardrobe styling. I also want to go back to school. I also credit my mom and dad for my work ethic.”

Smythe continued, “I wouldn’t change anything. This journey builds character, maturity, and has made me wiser. I asked, ‘Why me?’ at first, but then I thank God because had this not happened, I wouldn’t have been able to help others.”

OJ Spivey covers sports, culture, and city life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.