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Health and Fitness

Jackey's Journey: Part III

'Can I handle my truth?'

For five consecutive days last month, I was a "victim, not victor." Five dark days of convincing myself that cancer will defeat my spirit, soul and rob me of my body.

You see, right before Christmas I was admitted to the hospital after a staph infection developed upon the completion of my second reconstruction surgery. I was pumped with four different antibiotics intravenously in the hope that my doctor wouldn't have to remove my tissue expanders that had been placed on my chest wall immediately following my double mastectomy on January 13, 2015. Although tissue expanders are temporary, and much harder than breast implants, they "look the part" until saline or silicone implants replace them. Many breast cancer patients refer to the tissue expanders as "Foobies" and I'd been with mine for almost a year. They'd grown on me, literally.

After a few days inpatient at the hospital, my doctor was not confident that I could keep my left foobie without the infection spreading to other parts of my body. The decision was made to remove it. As I mentally prepared for this 45 minute procedure, I filled my head with positive thoughts and affirmations. I reflected on my journey from the day I was diagnosed and gave myself mental credit for fully completing all of my chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, withstanding the six and a half weeks of daily radiation treatments, and for embracing and adopting the 'Not just survivor, but rather a thriver,' perspective. My doctor advised me before the double mastectomy that it's routine to have a couple surgeries during the reconstruction portion of this journey. I told myself,

Jackey, Rome was not built in a day and your perfect breasts will not be built with one surgery!"
-MCC Jackey Smith

I playfully recorded video of my friend Julianne, using my cell phone. She'd come to visit Charles and me. I laughed and joked with the three hospital personnel who rolled me and my hospital bed to the pre-procedure unit where I met with my operating room nurse and anesthesiologist. I smiled when my doctor came in to draw exactly where he was going to cut me open and remove the expander. I was confident that I was mentally prepared. I didn't flinch even when I was warned about a slight risk of waking up during the procedure. As soon as the anesthesiologist placed an anesthetic in my intravenous line, I kissed my husband, Charles and was rolled into surgery.

Photo collage of Chief Smith and her husband, a "be brave" bracelet, and Chief Smith at the hospital for a check-up.

About an hour later, I woke up in the recovery unit feeling like I'd just taken a power nap. The recovery unit is similar to an office of curtained off cubicles. Each patient has a post-procedure nurse and a guest. This is also where the surgeon will come chat with the patient about the procedure. Charles was sitting to the right of me and a post-procedure nurse was at the head of my bed, monitoring my vital signs and administering pain medicine. Within seconds of waking up, I placed my right hand over my heart to feel where my left expander had been holding space until it's replaced with "Perfect Left Boobie." I felt nothing but an indentation and cried instantly, almost uncontrollably. Charles stood at the end of my hospital bed gently rubbing my leg, trying to soothe my mental anguish and despair. The post-procedure nurse offered to bring a chaplain over for me to talk with. I quickly declined. I wanted to hide in a hole and never come out.

The hole in my chest was a stark reality that for almost a year, as I recovered from my own double mastectomy, I'd carried a pair of false sense of security foobies while unintentionally distancing myself from the reality of the enormous physical tole that the human body endures to stay in the fight and hopefully win on the war against this cancer.

Sure, before all of this I had poisons put in me, I'd lost ALL of my hair, had third- degree burns and a very large portion of the front and back of my skin was dark and tight but for me, the casualty of cancer wasn't as real until I woke up and physically touched the left side of my chest.

Complete silence filled the air as I returned to my hospital room There were no jokes, no laughs, absolutely nothing. Once in my room, I wanted everyone gone, including the hospital staff. I needed time to process my sunken chest. Charles quietly sat with me as I grieved. I asked myself if he was grieving as well. Grieving that the woman he would leave the hospital with no longer displayed all of the genetic characteristics of a woman. Later, he told me that he was just thankful I was alive. I fell asleep praying to find peace and comfort with the latest physical alteration of my body.

Photo collage of Chief Smith getting an exam done, Chief Smith smiling for a photo, and Chief Smith with friends.

The next morning my hospital corpsman came into my room. She asked to see my wound so that she could report how it was looking. I refused to allow her to see it. I hadn't viewed it and until that happened, I wasn't letting anyone besides my husband see what I was visualizing as an extremely flawed and deformed chest. As she exited my hospital room, I slowly sat up on my bed and walked to my bathroom, closing the door behind me. I leaned on the wall and quietly shed tears for minutes. I tried to get some positive vibes going, but nothing I thought of could overcome the feeling of completely losing a physical part of my body.

I prayed to God for peace, pulled myself from the wall and faced the mirror. Slowly, I pulled my hospital gown off, looking down the whole time to ensure that the Jackson-Pratt (JP) drain tube that was placed inside of me during surgery allowing the tube to come out of the left side of my upper torso, was not harmed. I inhaled deeply and looked into the mirror. At that exact moment, I was forced to face and feel the self-embarrassment, shame, anxiety, isolation, fear and defeat that I have been avoiding since that warm summer day in 2014 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I left the hospital the following morning, with the emotions of both a woman who's had both a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and a mastectomy without immediate reconstruction. Once Charles and I got home, I walked to our bedroom and went straight to bed. I wanted to hibernate and come out when all of this cancer crap was over. Charles made sure that the boys were fed and taken care of. He would check on me and provide jokes and gestures that would eventually bring a smile to my face. My youngest son, Kameron knocked on my bedroom door and when he came in, he told me how happy he was that I was home while giving me a gentle hug. Jerry, our oldest and most meek, offered to walk our dog everyday until I got back on my feet. It felt good to be cared for an loved.

The following day was Christmas Eve and as I went to sleep, it hit me: I'd hadn't really finished all of my Christmas shopping! Christmas morning arrived. We opened gifts and rested. Later, the boys and I went over to our friends' home for dinner and fellowship. When we returned, Charles and I cuddled on the couch and watched the movie, "Annie." We laughed and reminisced about how easy life was for for each of us when the movie was originally released; we were kids! Nostalgia filled our home as we watched "Dirty Dancing" after. Remembering the younger days, before life threw life at us. Before I went to sleep that evening, I sent a short text to a friend and cancer thriver that I met during chemotherapy. She'd had a mastectomy without immediate reconstruction. I also posted how I was feeling to the social media support circle of my earthy angels and asked that they pray and send positive vibes my way.

Photo collage of Chief Smith smiling for a photo, Chief Smith and her doctor, Chief Smith with CNO and MC1 Carey.

The next day, I woke up to a string of text messages full of love and positivity from my girlfriends. I also woke up with a text from my pink sister that I'd texted the prior evening. Her text validated my feelings and yet, it also reminded me that we have choice on this journey. I can be bitter about what I'm experiencing or I can be better! She invited me to have dinner and go see a "female empowerment movie." Charles encouraged me to take some time with someone who's experienced this portion of the journey. I agreed to meet up. As I drove to dinner, my husband called me. "Hello...," I said. "Hey, I just want to tell you that you are as beautiful as the day that I met you," said Charles.

My friend had brought another pink sister who'd began chemotherapy on my last day of chemotherapy. As I introduced myself, she said,

I recognize you because of your smile., it's beautiful. The nurses still talk about you and your positive, super extroverted self."
-Pink Sister

I smiled and admitted that I can be a bit 'extra' from time to time! As the three of us enjoyed our meal, my heart was warmed knowing that the two ladies that I was sharing with could understand and although we've experienced completely different lives, we are forever bonded through the story of our battle with breast cancer.

As I drove home that evening, I examined the last five days of my life until that moment and came to this solid conclusion. Faith is so important in my life. Faith has blessed me with an amazing support network of people who are determined to bring out the best in me. Faith has allowed me to cling to hope. God placed individuals in my life at certain points for a specific purpose and I am so blessed for understanding that. Faith has blessed my household in many unimaginable ways.

Photo collage of Chief Smith at a football game, Chief Smith and medical staff, Chief Smith smiling for a photo.

I've met Mandisa! Yes, the singer who inspired me to be an "Overcomer." Charles was commissioned at the beginning of the month and it looks as though sunny San Diego is where the Smith family will drop anchor next. I've began work to start a non-profit organization that helps young Navy members who've recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. My family enjoyed time in Nebraska for a family reunion and I saw friends from high school and college. Speaking of college, we also were able to enjoy a Husker football game during our stay.

Not all blessings have been tangible either. On my journey, I have attained more gentleness, more grace, more peace, and definitely more humility and I believe that these traits are blessings from my storm. I believe that sharing my experience is extremely bigger than me. At the core of every person is the desire to feel healthy and loved. If I am a tool that you use to kick-start your own health journey, I encourage you to get checked out. If something doesn't feel right, say something. We're only given one body, listen to it! Thanks for continuing this path to healing.
All Hands graphic of Chief Smith smiling with breast cancer ribbon in the background.

All Hands graphic of Chief Smith smiling with breast cancer ribbon in the background.