I began in the pool industry in 1974 working for DeMar Baron, the godfather of plastering. After high school, I went into it full time, realizing that I liked pools better than college.

By the early ’80s, I started my own business, and 90 percent of my work was replastering jobs.

During this time, I never gave much thought to sun protection. I constantly worked with my shirt off and got a great tan. I also did quite of bit of acid washing back then and was inhaling a lot of fumes. I didn’t think it was a big issue. Then one day in June 2003, I was driving in my car when I felt a 2-inch lump on the side of my throat.

The doctors originally thought it was inflamed lymph nodes and gave me antibiotics. Those didn’t work. They also gave me anti-inflammatory medicine. That didn’t work either. Finally, I had a biopsy and the diagnosis came back: squamous cell carcinoma (stage 3B). The doctor told me that it started between my throat and tongue, and had metastasized to the lymph system. It wasn’t good.

I asked them about my chances for recovery. They told me cases like mine had about a 30 percent chance of survival.

Here’s the strange thing about all of this: A close friend of mine had died from exactly the same disease just six months earlier. I was with him the day before he passed away. It was awful.

I’m a Christian and I remember praying to God, saying that I can handle anything but what my friend went through. I told God that this is the last thing I want to happen to me. Then I got the exact same thing!

My faith was being tested, and this was a turning point for me. So I got down on my knees and prayed, “What do you want me to do now?”

I had been a fix-it guy my whole life, priding myself on being able to find a solution to almost anything. Now, here was a problem I couldn’t fix myself. But I was told not to be afraid and to trust God.

I began to investigate how my cancer could be treated. A lot of surgeries were recommended, but I saw people who went through it, and I didn’t like the results. The medical establishment just cuts away as much cancer as they can, hacking at everything. They follow that up with chemotherapy and radiation, but I didn’t want half my face removed.

Eventually, I met Neil Barth, M.D., in Newport Beach, Calif. He recommended that I have chemo and radiation first to shrink the tumors and then undergo the surgery. I received the treatments in massive doses, lost more than 60 pounds and had a feeding tube inserted in my stomach for nearly six months.

When all of this started, I had just been appointed chairman of the National Plasterers Council’s Research Committee. I told them that I would have to resign. But Mitch Brooks, NPC’s executive director, said, “Don’t quit. We’ll get someone to help you.” The work turned out to be a good distraction.

Every day is a gift, no matter how sick you feel. The whole thing ended up being a positive experience in that it let me look at the world in a different light.

After the treatment, they did a series of biopsies on my neck — 20 to 30 slices — to see how much cancer was left. They didn’t find anything. I was in remission.

Today, I am much more willing to step out of my comfort zone to take on new problems. One example is my decision to join the brand-new school Northrise University in Nadola, Zambia, as chairman of its Agricultural Development Committee. They’re starting a school of agriculture there, so instead of feeding the Zambians, we’re teaching them to feed themselves. I’m in charge of agricultural development, which includes organizing and finding people with farming expertise, as well as helping raise funds for the entire university. We are also starting a children’s hospital and two orphanages. Everything we grow on the school’s farm will help to support the projects.

Moffat Zimba was a pastor here in Southern California. He shared his vision of Northrise with me long before my diagnosis, and I had been making donations to the school. But after the cancer, I realized I had another calling.

Previously, I wouldn’t have taken the chairman post. But today, fear of failure isn’t important to me anymore. The cancer struggle took it away. I now have the strength and vision to do things differently.

In terms of my business, I’m more apt to try new things that are outside the mainstream, such as engineering different custom finishes. I’m also a big fan of research because I was the recipient of new treatments. This applies to our industry as well, and that’s why I’ve become so passionate about raising more money for the NPC and other efforts.

The most important thing I learned is that the victory isn’t my surviving. Instead, it’s in the journey itself and the attitude I have now from day to day. Success doesn’t always reside in the outcome, but in how you go about things and deal with the situation.

Stay aboveboard, and have integrity and faith. Use these types of situations as opportunities. Not only will you succeed in business, but you’ll get ahead in life as well.

Alan Smith


Alan Smith Pool Plastering

Orange, Calif.

Lessons Learned

  • Learn all you can about a problem before you try to solve it. Research, research and research some more. And have faith.
  • Sometimes you can’t fix everything yourself. It’s all right to ask for help.
  • Every day is a gift. Use your time to reach out in some way to others. It will make you a better person and businessman.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail because there are lessons to be learned.
  • Get out of the mainstream and experiment. It just might lead to success.