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MOBILE, Ala. -- “I wouldn’t change it. I would do it all over again; it made me a better person,” says Cathy Smith of Mobile, a Stage 3 breast cancer survivor.
Undoubtedly, Smith’s outlook is unique given that her road to survivorship was paved with seemingly insurmountable obstacles; however, Smith drew strength and confidence from her faith in God throughout her journey. Even discovering she had cancer was a matter of divine intervention, she says.
Smith describes how she “awoke from a dead sleep” with a compulsion to conduct a self-exam on her breast – something she had never done before.
“I don’t know why,” she says of the miraculous impulse before concluding, “God did it.”
The next morning, Smith looked in the mirror and thought, “Lord, there’s something I was supposed to be checking,” when she remembered and checked her breast. “I felt a lump.”
In August 2014, Smith went to have her breast checked; however, not yet being 40 years old and not having the insurance, she said no one was particularly concerned or motivated to help her.
“I said, ‘Lord, what was I going to do?’” At this point, it was October, which Smith knew was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so she turned to the Internet with the belief that she’d find someone to do a mammogram.
The outlook seemed bleak. It only was after a visit to her primary care doctor and with the aid of a tenacious nurse who persevered for three or four days that they finally found someone who would perform the mammogram.
Four days after the test, Smith got a phone call, but the results weren’t what she expected.
On October 28, as she was leaving her first job and going to her second job, Cathy says, “I received a call, and my primary doctor told me over the phone that I had cancer. I didn’t know what I was going to do.” Her voice catches.
“That was the longest 45-minute ride home because I didn’t know how I was going to tell my family,” she says, referring to her mother and her four children.
“I didn’t get upset until I got in front of my mom and my daughter, and I told them what was going on. I was upset because they were upset,” she said. “I wasn’t upset (for myself) because I knew there was a God, and I knew he wasn’t done with me yet. I just kept my faith in God.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, Smith was able to get Medicaid, which covered her treatments. “When I got diagnosed, I didn’t any insurance. That was one of my biggest worries.” After getting insurance, she says, “I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to beat this.”
Smith soon began an aggressive regimen to treat her Stage III HER2-positive breast cancer. In addition to having tumors that started at 4-6 centimeters in size, she was also HER2-positive, meaning she has a genetic protein that promotes the growth of breast cancer cells.
What followed was neoadjuvent cytotoxic chemotherapy and a mastectomy of Smith’s left breast on June 18, 2015, to remove the cancer, which had progressed into her lymph nodes and onto her chest wall. Afterward, between July 2015 and April 2016, Smith underwent targeted therapy with monoclonal antibodies every three weeks.
She also completed 36 rounds of radiation Monday through Friday over a two-month span. “I would go to my radiation treatments at 7:30 in the morning, and I would leave from there and would have to be at work at 8:30.” She continually worked both of her jobs and attended school online while undergoing treatment.
Throughout her ordeal, Smith channeled her worries into positive pursuits; she applied herself toward earning her bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University online. Once she earns her bachelor’s, she intends to pursue a master’s and, afterward, to ideally create a center of learning for deaf children. Because both of her parents are deaf, she grew up a member of the deaf community and understands how difficult it can be for deaf people to live in society.
“I feel like if I would’ve sat at home, the cancer would’ve consumed me…. I just knew I had to provide for my kids. They were my motivation, and if I didn’t do it, nobody else would,” she said. “They were my rock, my backbone. Everything I did was for my mom and my kids and my family…. I have a 93-year-old grandma. I didn’t want my grandma to bury me.”
Smith also drew support from those she encountered while participating in clinical trials at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute. She says that staffers such as Clinical Research Specialist Pamela Francisco “made me feel I could overcome this. They built the relationship. It wasn’t just that I was the patient.”
Thus, it was a special moment when a cancer-free Smith rang a bell at MCI to mark her final treatment. Her grandmother and other family members were there to witness the momentous occasion.
Like most breast cancer survivors, advocacy and outreach have become matters of importance for Smith. Last year, she participated in a breast cancer awareness walk. This year, she plans to be one of the fashion models at the Mitchell Cancer Institute’s Think Pink Tea, an annual celebration of breast cancer survivorship. The event, which involves a runway fashion show and refreshments, takes place Thursday, October 6, 2016, from 4-6 p.m. at the Alabama Cruise Terminal.
Undoubtedly, Smith will demonstrate to fellow advocates and survivors that optimism and a willingness to fight the odds are always fashionable.
“There’s always a positive outlook on life. Have faith in God,” she says. “Stay positive. Stay focused. You know that you can beat this.”
To RSVP for the Think Pink Tea, a free event for breast cancer survivors and supporters, call 251-445-9691.
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