Hope in healing
This October marks the 25th anniversary of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. An annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities, the milestone is designed to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention and cure.
One courageous woman, Nashville resident Sheila Smith, has much to celebrate during this year's festivities. She's now been a breast cancer survivor of 15 years; the last 8 years have been with metastases to bone.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, Smith had no inkling of the journey that lay before her. Since that time, her life has been a blur of hospital visits and medical bills. Still, she has stuck assiduously to her life's plan despite many setbacks.
Those setbacks began soon after Smith's diagnosis. After she underwent a mastectomy during her first round of treatment, Smith developed a staph infection that lasted for six months. During that dark period, her mother died from stroke complications and her father was fighting his initial bout with liver cancer, a disease he bravely battled until his death in 2005.
Smith's professional life also suffered. For 16 years, she'd worked for the Metro Codes Department as Nashville's first and only female residential building inspector, a position she was forced to leave due to her illness.
Years of tears and fleeting triumphs followed. In 2008, Smith decided to take a more positive, proactive stance by attending Camp Bluebird, an adult cancer camp sponsored by Saint Thomas Hospital and AT&T. For the first time, she began meeting other women who understood her struggle. At the suggestion of Vanderbilt employees and breast cancer survivors Pam Martin and Kathy Hallock, she entered into the REACH for Survivorship Program.
"My life with cancer started changing when I went to Bluebird in 2008," Smith said. "At first I thought 'Why do I want to go to a camp with cancer survivors? But that started to help me come out of my shell."
During her illness, many friends had shied away from Smith, unable to cope with the magnitude of her situation. Diane Neel, Smith's partner of eighteen years, noticed that others who had suffered from cancer could relate better to their battle.
"They are like one big community," she said. "It levels the playing field. There are people there that are white, black, gay, straight---it didn't matter. It's more comforting to have people around you to talk with. You have a new family."
Neel remained an ardent supporter of her partner, even as the grueling process wore on and Smith became an invalid due to increasing pain in her back. This relapse never harmed their relationship.
"It's never been a question of whether I was going to stay," Neel said. "It was never an option for me to leave. Everything in our relationship mirrored what I grew up with. My mom died of cancer and my dad was always sick. I kind of have to be the barrier and have limits as to how much she can do."
Smith added, "I have to tried to face the journey with a positive outlook. It was hard to see people going along on their positive walks of life, but I had learned how to deal with it."
Finally, in an effort to resume a normal life, Smith visited Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center for further medical assistance. Dr. David Slosky ordered a battery of tests that showed she'd experienced minimal heart damage from a chemotherapy drug when she was first diagnosed with cancer. She then submitted herself to a PET scan, and also underwent a physical evaluation through REACH.
Ann Marie Flores, P.T., Ph.D., M.S., M.A., Assistant Professor of the Vanderbilt Orthopaedic Institute confirmed that she had lymphedema, a medical term for fluid buildup in the body. A previous massage therapist had told Smith that her entire right side had problems from lymphedema, but no medical precautions were taken. Smith says that many of her issues were overlooked or were not considered important at the time, causing her to accept the constant discomfort.
"Chronic pain changes your outlook," Smith admitted. "Now I have the grace and the gift to be able to do things. I have to feel like I'm a part of something. But back then I would have to sit a home---and I do enjoy my home---but it can close on you really quickly. I've been a hard woman a lot of times. When I get in a depressed stage, it's ugly."
Smith decided to pursue new, unconventional treatments to rid herself of back pain. These particular procedures were new in Tennessee and in most parts of the United States. Treatment was not covered by insurance and was very costly.
Smith was referred to David Adcock, P.T., at Saint Thomas/Baptist Sports Medicine, who helped her to remove the fluid naturally from her body. In the first two weeks of treatment, she lost 1 1/2 inches of fluid from her right arm.
For many years, Smith had hesitated to go out in public often for fear of aggravating her injuries. Now, she was largely pain-free.
This new lease on life has motivated Smith to make use of her artistic talents. She recently won first place in the Eastside Cycles Tomato Art Bike Contest and three of her fused glass pieces were displayed at the festival. In recent years, she's also served as an assistant in after-school art programs, where she shares her enthusiasm and experience with local students.
"Whatever I do now it has to be involved with art," Smith said. "With the drugs I take, fatigue is a constant problem. But I used to only work a couple hours at a time, and now I can go for four or five hours. I've try to focus on what I can improve and what I can learn to live with."
Since completing the REACH program, Smith has remained retired, but she's gradually revisited many of her daily activities and, just to prove she hadn’t lost an ounce of her spirit and spunk, she's taken numerous vacations with Neel, including trips to Amsterdam and Las Vegas.
These days, Smith exults in the power of her own resilience and the kindness shown by others during her ordeal. She remains humbled by the outpouring of support from friends and family members, many of whom have expressed disbelief that she hasn't succumbed to the disease.
"My doctors, medical providers, family, friends, and I have been very happy that I have lived as long as I have," Smith said. "This (cancer) has taught me to be grateful for what I have. I'm a different person now. I'm stronger and more positive; I live a much happier and healthy life. I am more comfortable than I have been in years and I am more active that I have been in years. I used to have a bumper sticker that said 'Livin' large' and that's what I try to do now."
Like all arduous journeys, the one Smith endured has taken a toll but also transformed her into a more intelligent, compassionate human being.
"I want to be a voice that says 'It's bad, but you can make it'," Smith said. "It's been hard to know how to talk about it and how to share my story. In some stages, it's all I could talk about. But I've learned these hard valuable lessons. My mission in life is to deal with this. It has made me look at every thought and truth that I've had in my life, and I hope I can help others as well."