Father and daughter face cancer together

Family credits close ties and faith with helping Minnesota man through numerous health battles.

JoAnne Harberts and her father Phil Smith

Father’s Day is a time to celebrate, honor and thank all the men who get to call themselves “dad.”

For JoAnne Harberts, this Father’s Day gives her the chance to celebrate another year spent with her dad, Phil Smith, and to reflect on the special bond they share.

“We’re always together as a family — working, hanging out at the lake, holidays,” Harberts said. “I’m very appreciative of him. He’s an awesome dad.”

The two work together at their family-owned business, Smith Trucking Inc., in Worthington, Minnesota, and spend much of their free time in the summer at their lake house in Okoboji, Iowa.

So when both Harberts and Smith were diagnosed with cancer in 2013 — Harberts with breast cancer and Smith with colon and laryngeal cancer — it only made sense that they take on the journey together.

Both went through radiation together through all of October, and Smith continued his treatment into November.

“They told us we were the first ever parent-child set to come in,” Harberts said. “We’d pretty much go in one right after the other.”

Harberts remembers the doctors keeping a close eye on her father’s throat throughout the following year. In August 2014, Smith’s laryngeal cancer came back.

Smith underwent surgery at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the following October to remove the cancer on his larynx. Doctors removed part of his voice box, then reconstructed it with surrounding tissues and ligaments — a procedure that nurses told the family is not something they normally do. However, Smith didn’t give them much of a choice. When doctors had mentioned a permanent tracheostomy (surgically created hole in the neck for breathing), he told them that wasn’t an option.

“You can’t go boating or out on the lake with a trach,” he said with a laugh.

Family support

Smith has had a long history of health problems, starting as a child when he was diagnosed with polio. As an adult, he battled inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer and laryngeal cancer.

“My poor mother would come with me to chemo appointments in Sioux Falls, then we’d go meet my dad in Luverne and she’d get out of my car and get in with him to go to his appointment,” Harberts said.

The two tearfully reflected on care from their wife and mother, Rita, as well the support from additional family members. Both said having cancer made them appreciate all the help they were given.

“You learn to be thankful for what you have through your trials,” Harberts said.

Despite the challenges of going through cancer treatment, Harberts said the experience not only strengthened their family, but also their faith.

“We’re a pretty faith-centered family, but this definitely brought that out more for me,” she said. “I leaned on the Lord a lot more during that time. It was never, ‘Why us?’ We just had to forge ahead and get through what we have to.”

Care team

Besides their family, Smith and Harberts credit their care team at Sanford Health for the additional support.

“I have a lot of respect for those doctors and nurses at Sanford,” Smith said. “I have a lot to be thankful for.”

Some of those people include: Robert Van Demark Sr., retired orthopedic surgeon; Jorge Gilbert, M.D., gastroenterology; Andrew Terrell, M.D., ear, nose and throat surgery; Jesse Dirksen, M.D., breast surgery; Jonathan Bleeker, M.D., oncology; H. Jae Yoon, M.D., radiation oncology; Donna Dwire, RN, CBCN; Jennifer Schmidt, RN.

Both would also like to give special thanks for the staff at the Sanford Worthington Cancer Center.

“All made the whole radiation treatment much more tolerable for both of us,” Harberts said.


Harberts is grateful for the opportunity to spend Father’s Day with her family, and also for the life events she and her dad are able to attend, thanks to the help from Sanford Health.

“I’m thankful to be here for my son’s graduation from high school last year and my daughter’s wedding in a few weeks. Very happy for be around for that.”

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Posted In Cancer, Health Information, Worthington