A glimpse into cancer, chemo and courage
I am Chief Petty Officer Jackey Smith. I was asked to share my breast cancer journey a few weeks ago and I quickly agreed. However, as the deadline grew closer, I found myself putting off writing about my experience with this ugly disease called breast cancer. Showing this vulnerability isn't comfortable for me.
Being an open chapter for the world is a bit scary, but with prayer and after talking with my husband Charles, I knew that I could not remain silent. I know that if sharing my experience prompts one person to go to the doctor when their body feels out of whack, I am doing the right thing. My body had been feeling out of whack for months, yet I put it off and it could have killed me.
I'd noticed a tiny lump within my left breast during the fall of 2012. I'd also just gotten a job as the Public Affairs Chief to the Office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON)...sweet gig! I was excited for my next assignment, but also worried about this tiny lump. So I decided to get a referral from my Primary Care Manager (PCM) to get a mammogram. It came back unclear and I was referred to have an additional mammogram completed. It came back normal. I was told that breasts can be lumpy or dense and I still had almost a decade before I needed to start getting annual mammograms. I left the breast care clinic with a sigh of relief and prepared to start a new chapter in my military career.
Let's fast forward to the spring of 2014. I'd been working for the MCPON for almost two years; Charles was geo-bacheloring from Norfolk, Va., and preparing for an upcoming deployment. My sitter was basically raising my two boys, Jerry and Kameron. I'd leave before they were up and come home long after they'd had dinner and were preparing to sleep. My physical fitness routine was slim to none. I'd easily gained 20 pounds and I was living on fast or processed food. My work/life balance was all messed up, but in my mind I was, "getting by."
I'd noticed some small bruising on my arms and thighs but that's normal right? Women spend half their time getting bruises and the other half wondering how they got there. I'd noticed a tingling sensation in my left arm, but made a silly excuse for it. "I get tingling sensations in my feet when I run longer than five miles, so the tingling in my arm is nothing." I was extremely tired but I thought, "The long hours and stress of dual military living apart is just wearing me out, and I have a long, crazy commute to work each day!" I convinced myself that I was fine and even told myself, "I'm a Chief Petty Officer, hard is what I do, so these little symptoms are nothing!" I pressed on.
One evening before Charles deployed, we were playing around and he noticed a small lump on my left breast. He advised me to get it checked out. I smiled and said, "Ok." In the back of my mind I had the "comfort" of knowing I'd been proactive before and everything came back normal, so taking time off work to get myself checked out again was nonsense talk. Getting another mammogram...no thanks! Weeks went by, Charles deployed, and life went on.
I had planned a birthday dinner at the beginning of July with a few of my girlfriends. I was so excited to see these ladies and catch up. As I was preparing for the evening, I noticed the lump had gotten a bit bigger and harder than when Charles had mentioned it to me. It was weird, but not a focus point for me, again resting on the "comforts" of the past tests. Besides, it was my birthday, my friends were around me and so how could anything be wrong.
The following Monday, I told a co-worker about the lump, she told my boss' wife about the lump, and after a video shoot, my boss' wife asked me how things were going. I knew she knew. I knew my co-worker had mentioned it to her. I could just feel it in my gut. I tried assuring her that I was fine, but she insisted that I make an appointment with my PCM. I smiled and nodded. Time away from my desk was a no-go in my mind. A couple days past and everything was back on track, when the next thing I know, I have my co-worker standing at my desk telling me that she's not leaving until I make an appointment with my PCM. I was annoyed and frustrated. What's the big deal? I WAS ALRIGHT! "Fine," I said. I got up and walked down to the health clinic. I saw my PCM who immediately called the Breast Care Clinic at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMC) to have me seen. The look on my doctor's face was definitely not the look a patient wants to see. It was a "something is not right and I am not sure if I can get her to the Breast Care Clinic soon enough!" look. She advised me to leave the clinic and head over to WRNMC , do not pass go, and do not collect two hundred dollars! I went back up to my office, finished our weekly scheduling meeting, and then headed over to the hospital.
Once there, I walked into the cold room and saw the machine that was going to suck my breasts into it and take pictures of them...yay. The technician put some metal magnet type things in places on my breasts, positioned my arms, poked, prodded, squeezed, and snapped away. She left the room with a defeated smile and another doctor entered shortly after. This doctor came in, spoke slowly to me, and said that she'd like to schedule me for more testing. I thought, "Ugh, more time out of work, just what I need."
The next few weeks became a whirlwind blur. Nothing is wrong, you are too young to have breast cancer, I told myself. I had more mammograms, ultrasounds, failed aspirations, and biopsies. My instincts were screaming that something was wrong, yet I had convinced myself that every test would come back normal.
I began a new normal on Friday, July 25, 2014. I was driving when my cell phone rang. It was a radiologist from WRNMC. He read my diagnosis to me. I had Stage Two invasive breast cancer and it'd spread to at least one lymph node. "Ok," I replied. "Ma'am, do you have any questions?" "No," I said. I was in shock, I had my boys in the car, my husband was on some ship in Italy or Spain, and I told myself that there was no crying, no breaking down. The radiologist gave me a phone number to my nurse navigator. She was assigned to help navigate me through the process of developing a treatment plan. I called her after I got off the phone with the radiologist. She informed me that the breast cancer I was diagnosed with was aggressive and that the team would develop an equally aggressive plan to get me "hopefully 30 more years." She sounded sad. I got upset. There was no way I was going to accept only 30 more years of life! I have at least 60 good ones in me!
An additional thought that came over me was how I'd been to war, I'd seen some crazy crap, I've fought in unfamiliar lands but now war was in my own body. I didn't have time for stupid cancer! I was making calls to line up my next gig..sea duty in sunny San Diego! God laughed at my plans though. I told God, "I know you will never give me more than I can handle, but really, you have a sense of humor!"
I began my first round of six rounds of chemotherapy Aug. 14. I've had random thoughts about how in order to heal, I have to inject this poison into my body that fights both the bad AND the good blood cells. I've come to terms with the fact that after the chemo, I will have a double mastectomy, radiation, reconstruction surgery, hormonal drugs for a year, and five years of oral pills.
My hair began falling out at the end of August. It started coming out in small handfuls so I decided to have my guys give me a haircut. My youngest gathered my hair into a ponytail, my oldest began cutting it and my husband finished the big chop. The ear length cut lasted a few days. Though I still had some of my hair, Charles and I went wig shopping. I don't like wigs, but decided on one. I cried in the wig shop when it was time to give my insurance information. It was all getting too real. I decided to stop at a local hair salon and get a professional haircut that resembled what my son, Kameron described as a "Miley Cyrus" cut. It was short and sassy.
We took a trip to visit family in West Virginia in early September and on our way back, I noticed that my hair shedding was just too much. I asked Charles to cut all of my hair off the night we returned from visiting family. It was an emotional moment for me. I cried; we had to take breaks; my husband would kiss my head as he ran the clippers over it. Sam Smith's song, "Stay with me" and Mandisa's "Overcomer" played as I saw my short hair get shorter, shorter, and eventually bald. At the end of the session, I felt loved by the men that mattered most. We got through it.
I've recently finished my third round of chemotherapy. I'm halfway done with this poison producing medicine! Hooray! Oct. 1 I stood with other amazing women on the Today show to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the most important feeling that I've come to love is that I believe I'm educating others to understand the importance of early detection. I could have kept putting off the doctor's visits to the point that I was Stage Four. I could have kept telling the little voice in my head to "shut the hell up, I have to be at work!" I'm thankful for my loved ones who pushed me to seek medical attention.
Cancer changes us, there's no doubt about that, but it's up to us to decide what that change will mean to us in our life and who we will become as a result. So far, this journey has allowed me to experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It's taken me on an emotional rollercoaster that I didn't think I'd ever be ready for. I'm a control freak and this journey has made me stop, ask for help, allow myself to be vulnerable, and has brought me so much closer in my faith, with my friends, and appreciate the love I receive from my husband and our children.
It's also ignited a flame that I refuse to let be burned out, a calling to the young women and men (because yes, men can get breast cancer) in the Navy who often ignore the warning signs that our bodies provide. We are provided with some of the best medical care, yet make excuses to avoid anything that may take you out of your work center. I encourage young women to do self-breast exams and immediately make appointments if any abnormalities arise. Early detection saves lives.
For the young women and men on the breast cancer journey, remember that scars are stories, reminders of good days and bad. They are reflections back on a journey filled with vulnerability and strength. Cancer and the scars it leaves don't take away your spirit or your beauty. If anything, it frees them for the world to see! Remember that you are beautiful, cared for, and you are going to be ok!
I'd like to thank all of the support I've received from my co-workers, friends, associates, and folks I don't even know! I've developed a social media support network that is unbelievably amazing and has often pulled me through some down and tough days.
Lastly, I thank my husband who was uprooted from his deployment to be assigned near me so that he can hold my hand through all of this. My sons have supported me so much and I'm so blessed. One day, Kameron asked me why I have cancer. I replied, "I don't know but God will take care of it." He followed up with, "Yep, God will take care of you!" And he has, through a network of his earth-living angels.