Three Treasure Coast Families Open Up About Their Battles Against Cancer—And The Fight For Life
Last year, Todd Cooper got the world’s worst 40th birthday surprise. His son Brandon, then age 7, complained of an upset stomach. It got so bad he could barely walk.
Todd Cooper and his wife, Cindy, carried Brandon into urgent care, and from there rushed him to Martin Hospital South. Emergency doctors realized Brandon required an immediate transfer to St. Mary’s Medical Center. With Martin County’s trauma helicopter unavailable, an ambulance rushed Brandon through Palm Beach County, Cindy Cooper beside his stretcher.
Admission. Tests. Consultation. More tests. Another consultation. Finally, diagnosis. That dreaded diagnosis.“You start preparing yourself for the worst,” Todd Cooper remembers upon hearing Brandon had leukemia. “But, we’ve already been through the worst.”
The Coopers are one family whose lives have been altered drastically by cancer. Here, we’ll visit the stories of the Coopers, the Smiths and the DeVitos, and hear how through tragedy, they’ve learned to find peace as families.
Life-changing moment No. 1 — The Coopers
On Sept. 29, 2010, Todd Cooper turned his Honda Civic—carrying his 11-year-old daughter Brianna, his 9-year-old son Bryce and his 3-year-old twins, Brylie and Brandon—westbound through a greenlight at the Stuart intersection of Kanner Highway and Pomeroy Street. An Oldsmobile driven by Michael Opsincs, 26, sped through the light and T-boned the Honda, splitting it in two.
Within moments, Brianna died.
Brandon suffered a ruptured spleen, a contusion on his liver and a badly injured leg. The rest of the family suffered minor injuries. In the days, months and years that followed, friends and family flocked to support the Coopers.
They comforted the family during the criminal trial of Opsincs, who was intoxicated during the accident and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Hundreds attended the annual sky-lanterns release on Brianna’s birthday. The Coopers established a foundation in their daughter’s name that provides financial and material support to anyone enduring the sudden loss of a loved one.
Then their youngest son gets … cancer?
Still, even at the onset of yet another “Why us?” nightmare, as the doctors ran down the litany of treatment options, the Coopers found pause for gratitude.
“You start thinking of the things that didn’t happen with Brianna,” Todd Cooper says. “We couldn’t say goodbye. But once you get into the diagnosis and the treatment, you start to realize that anything’s better than losing another child.”
In 2011, about a year after Brianna’s death, Todd Cooper’s mom lost a seven-year battle with lung cancer. She died Thanksgiving Day. That network of friends and neighbors in Stuart only expanded. With Brandon’s illness, the Coopers added new friends—parents of children fighting cancer. They relied more deeply on the faith that comforted them through Brianna’s death.
“We just try to keep our faith in the Lord,” Cindy Cooper says. “We haven’t changed much of the house. Brianna’s picture is still on the wall. ... We don’t try to hide things [from the children]. We just focus on God’s promise. But there are days I’d like to, you know, scream.”
Sisterly Love—The Smiths
The family that prays together certainly stays closer together while fighting cancer, Samella Smith attests. At least, for as long as they’re able.
“We’re a family of faith and we believe that God’s gonna bring us through it,” says the 56-year-old Port St. Lucie resident, who has five sisters and two brothers. “We just have to stay strong for each other.”
The family’s faith is forged in the fires of adversity. In 2002, Samella Smith’s sister, Tess, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tess underwent a double mastectomy. Then in 2007, her sister, Vivian, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a few good years, Tess’s cancer surged back. As she endured aggressive chemotherapy, Vivian was in remission. Then in 2012, Samella Smith herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2013, Vivian’s cancer returned.
“We were hoping for the best (for Tess),” Samella Smith says, “but the cancer had moved into her spine.”
On March 28, Tess died at age 73. At 60, Vivian is fighting the disease.
“I pray that none of my other sisters will ever have to go through this,” says Samella Smith, a wife and mother of four sons.
Witnessing the toll chemo wrought on her sisters, Samella Smith opted for radiation only.
“I think that’s what helped me go through this,” she says, “as I made a decision that was comfortable for me. Once death has come that close to your door, you realize how important life is. And you really want to experience it and appreciate it.” She says her thankfulness for life only grows stronger, even as she mourns the death of one sister and prays intently for another.
“It’s always a thought, ‘Will I be there one day?’” Samella Smith asks. “If so, if it’s God’s will—that’s OK.”
Seeking Guidance—The Devitos
A cancer diagnosis obliterates the illusion that every one of us clings to—that notion that we’re in control.
“So many of us are planners and doers and we create our own schedules,” Marisa Baskin says. “Once you have a diagnosis, your schedule is made for you.”
An oncology social worker at Robert and Carol Weissman Cancer Center in Stuart, Baskin is among a handful of people on the Treasure Coast with such a profession. Baskin helps people diagnosed with cancer navigate the complexities of the health care system, plug into community resources and identify any available sources of financial support. Formerly in hospice care, she also acts as a coach, counselor and confidant. Amazingly, her services are completely free—supported by donors of the Martin Memorial Foundation.
“If you live on the Treasure Coast but are seeking treatment elsewhere, you can come to me,” she says. “Or if your parent lives up north and as the child you need help, I’m available.”
A cancer diagnosis entirely overwhelms a person and his or her family. Rich or poor, alone or from a large family, anyone in this vulnerable circumstance needs guidance on where to begin—or simply someone who’s just willing to listen.
“We often say that you’re diagnosed with cancer, and as soon as that happens, a puzzle is thrown at you and it falls to the ground and you have to put all the pieces together,” Baskin says, “or try to.”
Martha DeVito can relate.
“Probably right now I’m having it the hardest I’ve ever had it,” says the 75-year-old Stuart resident.
Days earlier, she attended the funeral of her husband, Rocco DeVito, who died at age 88 of acute chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Three days before his death marked their 44th wedding anniversary.
“That was the last day he was actually aware of what was going on,” Martha DeVito says.
When Martha DeVito was 25, her dad died of lung cancer at age 46. When her mom was 67, she died of bone cancer. As an only child, she learned firsthand how to withstand crisis and shoulder heavy responsibility.
“I’m a strong person,” Martha DeVito says. “I’m very strong. Maybe I’m too strong. Maybe I should ask for more help.”
When diagnosed in 1999, Rocco DeVito didn’t need chemo. Tests showed strong counts of his red blood cells and white blood cells with no platelet damage. “It wasn’t getting worse, so he sort of forgot about it,” Martha DeVito says. “I never forgot about it.”
In many ways, the diagnosis brought them closer together.
“Our relationship got better, closer,” Martha DeVito says. “We’d talk about things that we didn’t talk about before.”
Eventually, Rocco DeVito’s white blood counts suffered. He elected for regular blood transfusions. Then he had a heart attack. The cancer worsened, damaging his platelets.
“A lot of things worsened since he got sick and I’ve wondered, ‘What am I going to do?’” she says. “I took care of everything, but I never did anything without consulting him.”
Although the couple had no children between them, Rocco DeVito had two sons, one daughter, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. His children remain very supportive, DeVito says, as do many of his cousins and extended family members. His nephew helped her organize the funeral held in New York and her cousin visited from Virginia to assist with the Stuart funeral. Neighbors filled her refrigerator with food. But for now, anyway, she prefers to face the empty house by herself.
“I’ve got all his stuff to pack up. I’m dreading that,” she says. “I wanted to do my mourning alone—and not be patted on the back. I cry and scream and shout, ‘Why?’”
Slipping in and out of past and present tenses when referring to her late husband, Martha DeVito reflects on the life of the devout Catholic and Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus member who built a successful business maintaining air-conditioning systems for various universities and corporations. He cherished time with family, regaling them with stories about the old days.
“He always says, ‘to make a long story short,’” Martha DeVito says. “But they were all long. On July Fourth with family, he was the last one to leave. He said, ‘I want to be with my cousins. Don’t rush me.’”
Even as his illness worsened, the couple enjoyed family reunions and evenings out. Maybe, Martha DeVito wonders, they managed to live a life less interrupted for so long because of how they referred to the disease.
“We always said leukemia,” she says. “We never said the word cancer. He knew it was cancer. I knew it was cancer. But we never said so.”
Appreciating each day
In Brandon’s case, Cindy and Todd Cooper don’t limit their language when describing the disease, knowing childhood itself provides some protective buffer.
“[Brandon] understands that his nana died from cancer, [that] he has cancer,” Todd Cooper says. “You tell them the truth. He sees it as being sick. But just him being a kid—their attention span is so short, he doesn’t dwell on it like an adult would.”
Brandon handles the treatment like a soldier. On top of the removal of his spleen (its enlargement led to the discovery of leukemia) and trouble with the incision—a 6-inch scar runs the length of his stomach—Brandon suffers a giant needle in his hip every three months to draw out bone marrow.
“Then he comes home and rides his bike in the afternoon,” Cindy Cooper says. “He’s one strong little man. He always has the most positive attitude about most things. He’s a kid who just brings the best to anybody’s day.”
That innocent and persevering joy embodied in the little boy refuels the family. It gives them a deeper appreciation for the precious, fleeting moments of togetherness.
“Things can change in a blink of an eye,” Cindy Cooper says. “It’s just being thankful that he’s still here with us. We made it a year. And I believe we’re gonna make it many more years to come.”