"I know God is with me..."
Think of the name Victoria and you conjure up images of royalty, stateliness, pleasure and, of course, victory.
Now, you might also think of a girl named Victoria Smitherman.
The 15-year-old resident of a California town called Corona—a name which also connotes royalty—lost a 4-year battle against cancer in November. Victoria was not victorious. At least not in the worldly sense.
For many who knew her, especially her parents, Veronica and Larry Smitherman, and her sister, Briana, she still wears a crown, earned through suffering and confirmed through faith and inner strength. She said she wanted to “leave a legacy of joy,” Veronica Smitherman said, to help people understand that “no matter how bad things are in our life, it is possible to be joyful.”
She was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, two weeks after her father suffered a double pulmonary embolism. It was an aggressive brain tumor tumor known as gliosarcoma, extremely rare in children. But at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, according to Veronica Smitherman, a physician saw hope and said, “When I see hope I do everything I can to make a child to be fine.”
“Victoria initially had surgery followed by radiation and some chemotherapy and did well for a number of years, without any evidence of cancer whatsoever, and then unfortunately her tumor came back, and when it came back she went through numerous treatments which I tried to get rid of it and keep it away, but were unfortunately unsuccessful,” explained Dr. Ashley Margol, Victoria’s oncologist.
Breaking the news of her diagnosis was the first challenge for the Smithermans. They relied on the assistance of the hospital’s psychological team, but still, it could have been difficult.
Their daughter surprised them.
“Victoria had a way to see things in which everything wasn’t a threat for her,” said Veronica, a native of Mexico. “She had a very positive way to see things since she was little. She was amazingly unique in that way. We couldn’t believe how joyful she was.”
The girl’s optimism certainly would be tested. She would endure a total of 12 surgeries, five of them on her brain. She would undergo countless rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, with side effects that sometimes put her in the hospital. She suffered brain bleeds, ports, pokes for blood tests and an experimental treatment that involve a transplant of her own stem cells—which her mother said was “horrendous.” All of that meant that she would be “unable to be in school and have the social life that she loved to have,” Veronica said.
“Victoria was a regular teenager,” Veronica wanted to assure readers. “She liked the movies, she liked to go out to eat, she liked Starbucks, she loved talking to friends. She was just a teenager, but with a huge cross.”
A bone marrow transplant gave her “tremendous suffering,” not least of which, no doubt, was the fact that it was unsuccessful.
“Bone marrow transplant did not work, and the tumor actually grew instead of shrunk,” the girl wrote in a letter for her Facebook friends. “The doctor also said that since the transplant didn’t work, our treatment options are getting smaller. This is not the news we wanted or expected…”
What she wrote next pretty much summed up her reaction to everything: “…but I know God will be with me.”
It’s like I told the doctor: “It’s almost like I’m standing on ice that is melting in an ocean, trying not to fall in. Well, if I do fall, good thing I know how to swim.”
Victoria seemed to be blessed with a naturally joyful and sunny disposition. “She once asked me to describe her with one word, and the one word I could think of was joy,” her mother related. “You’re not breakable. Everything causes you joy, even your cancer. I think this cancer is more of a blessing.”
Even those who didn’t know her saw something. “There were complete strangers who would approach me, ‘Is that your child?’” Veronica remembered. “Yes, I’d say. ‘Well, she’s glowing. She’s angelic. There’s something in her.'”
“She never complained about anything, and I asked her to do some pretty intensive therapies, and she was always a big part of the decision-making process and she was always extremely brave and willing to do anything to fight this disease,” Margol said.
“I met her at a fundraiser,” said local firefighter Jim Steiner. “We hit it off right away. Our personalities jibed. She was very adult-like and I could be like a kid, so our personalities balanced one another out a lot.”
Shortly before she passed away, someone asked Victoria if she had any regrets. She said she was sad that she would never have a quinceanera, that rite of passage that so many Mexican girls enjoy when they turn 15. Friends sprang into action, and a quinceanera happened. And Victoria wore a crown.
Debbie Potts, who goes to the same church as the Smithermans, said that Victoria always turned things around “to make it so she can help someone else.” When a charitable organization threw a birthday party for her, Victoria invited groups of people in town who needed help,” Potts said. “She told people, ‘Don’t bring me something, bring them something.”
It was the same thing with her quinceanera. “She turned it around to bless everyone else,” Potts said.
But the cross of Christ was never far from Victoria’s mind. “Once, in December 2015, she had four rounds of chemo in the span of two or three hours, and that was horrendous suffering,” Veronica said. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m not gonna live; I’m dying.’ She grabbed the cross and said, ‘Christ help me!'”
Veronica now reflects on what she calls “huge signs of the presence of God in every suffering” her daughter endured: a vision she said that she had of Divine Mercy just days before doctors discovered Victoria’s tumor; a God-filled moment when a traveling image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was placed in Victoria’s room overnight, and a mysterious voice that Victoria heard during a particularly difficult time.
“When she had a major brain bleed because of the chemotherapy, I was praying at the foot of her bed,” Veronica recalled. “The room was dark. She was sleeping but all of a sudden she asked, ‘Mom, what is that voice?’ I said, ‘There’s nobody here but me. You were dreaming, go back to sleep.’ She said, ‘No, Mom, someone is talking to me.’
The voice, she said, asked her, “Victoria, are you sure you wanna, wanna, wanna….?” trailing off into an echo.
An older woman from church helped her understand that it was perhaps God’s way of asking Victoria to think about her journey through life and that maybe the answer wouldn’t be forthcoming right away.
“She ended up saying, ‘Okay, I guess I have to wait until the future to find out what is it God really wanted from me.’ And then she was in peace.”
Veronica knows that she has a very special daughter, and she is anxious to share her legacy with the world. To that end, she keeps Victoria’s Facebook page going.
But, she insisted, it’s not about Victoria. “It’s about what God can do through suffering.”
Her surprising, life-affirming choice to respond to her suffering with joy is what gave Victoria a crown of victory.