October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Every Wednesday of the month, we will be highlighting the stories of those who have had their lives affected by breast cancer. These are just 5 stories of 5 exceptional people in a sea of millions. About 1 in 8 U.S. women and roughly 1 in 1,000 U.S. men will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of his/her lifetime; this is one of their stories.
Age 44 – June 2008 Stage III, Triple Negative, Aggressive Grade 3, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
In Her Words:
May 29, 2008 was the day my life changed. As I was getting dressed something unusual happened—Something inside of me just didn’t feel right. I went to stretch and I felt a sharp pain in my left breast. I put my hand at the source of the pain; it was a lump the size of two of my fingers.
Of course my first thought was ‘this could not be cancer’ because the misconception is you can’t associate breast cancer with pain. At the time all I could think of was my Aunt Lena, my mom’s sister, who passed away from breast cancer at the age of 27. Although I was only 8 years old at the time of her passing, memories of her illness and the emotions my mom, her siblings, and my grandmother experienced all hit me.
I did not want to bother anyone at the time about the lump I had found, nor was I going to dwell on the fact that the lump was as painful as it was. I sat on the side of the bed for a moment because the pain became so unbearable, and I prayed. I ask God to first remove the fear, remove the pain, the negative thoughts, and to give me a clear mind. The next morning, I called my doctor’s office and set up an appointment for a mammogram on that following Monday. I found myself touching my breast checking regularly to see if the lump was still there praying that it would just go away. I told my girlfriend about the lump I found and we both prayed my favorite scripture, Proverbs 3:5-8. The next few days were so very hard for me. Part of me would not allow me to dwell on the fear of what was ahead. I had to remember that the opposite of fear was faith. I called mom, my family, and one of my clients, a recent breast-cancer survivor, to let them know about the lump I found. They were all very positive and uplifting.
On June 2, my mom, my client and I made it to my mammogram appointment. As we waited for the nurse to call my name, I continued to pray and read my daily word. All kinds of things were running through my mind at this time, but I knew I had to stay positive. Once I went in to take my exam the nurse felt the lump herself and she kept my spirits up. With the lump being as painful as it was the mammogram only made it more painful.
I knew something was different about that day’s events. I was told to get dressed and that my doctor would contact me. I said to myself, ‘that’s not normal.’ All the times before when I received my mammogram I would be given a postcard and asked to address the post card to myself. Before I could get out of the office my phone rang and it was my doctor. She told me that she had received a call from the
Women’s Hospital Breast Center
and they would be sending her the film of my X-rays, and she would be calling me later that afternoon. I asked if it’s anything that I needed to be concerned about and she said until she looked at the film not to worry. That was easier said than done. I stayed glued to my phone the entire day holding my breath and praying God please!
As promised my doctor, Dr. Theresa Robinson, did call me to let me know that she did see a mass and she would like for me to get a biopsy as soon as possible. She then gave the information of three referrals of breast surgeons.
The next morning, on June 3, my mom, my three sisters, my cousin and I arrived to Dr. Terry’s office. Dr. Terry and her staff were personable which made my family and I feel very comfortable. Dr. Terry explained the procedure would be painful and it was. She gave us information about what to expect in the examination room. She asked everyone to leave for her to proceed with the biopsy. Once the biopsy was completed she allowed my family and I to view the sample of the tissue she would be sending to pathology. It would be a week before the test results would be back. I continued to keep myself busy for a big event in two weeks that I had been planning over the past six months. Dr. Terry’s office called me three days later to inform me that she wanted to see me in her office.
On June 9, I received the results of my pathology report of being diagnosed with breast cancer. I was numb. My mind was all over the place. Surgery the following week,
My event with over 300 kids, 25 special guests flying into town, transportation, etc.
Having to change my career,
Six months of chemo,
My hair falling out,
How will I take care of my responsibilities? CANCER. I do not want to put my family through this,
No matter what I was thinking the word
was stuck in my mind.
She never said that I had cancer. I was just waiting for her to say “Toni you have cancer.” It was not until I looked at Mom, then my sister Mary and she put her head down and they both started to cry. I realized that Dr. Terry had already said the test results came back positive and I indeed had breast cancer. To this day, I don’t remember those words coming out of her mouth. The way she communicated the information was so careful that I thought she was still explaining the different procedures of having the mass removed be it lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
It is true that once you’re told that you have cancer, the words are paralyzing. Paralyzing to the point that you cannot hear any thing else. Once I got through my reaction to the results, I cried. I was scared and I did not want to see my mom nor my family hurt or to have to go through this again.
Not once did I ask God ‘why me.’ I figured that I was the chosen one and I also knew that I had to trust that God would see my family and I through it all. Besides I watched my grandmothers pray to walk by faith and not by sight all my life and they taught the family to do the same.
Here’s where I was at this time in my life: In 1984, when I decided to pursue my passion as a hair stylist, I joined the staff of Headliners, one of Houston’s Top Hair Salons. It was there I learned my craft and then was able to proceed to open and operate my own salon, Toni’s Studio 819. Understanding the importance of diversification and choosing to be a person who continues to grow led me to my next successful endeavor – mortgage brokering and real estate. Then unfortunately, as the old adage goes, “you can’t control everything.” With the blink of an eye – breast cancer chose me.
Although, the lump was found in my left breast my doctor wanted to keep an eye on my right breast. My mind was made up before the news that whatever the results, benign or malignant, I wanted a mastectomy. I just would have preferred that they removed both breasts at the same time. My cancer was diagnosed at such an aggressive stage that my Doctor put together a team to work on me and told me that my surgery had been scheduled for the following week to remove my left breast. My question to her was, ‘Am I dying? Why is my surgery scheduled so soon?’ She also told me that the immediate keys to my survival would be to remove all stress from my life and to find a new job – because my current one could very well have been the catalyst to my cancer.
Two weeks after my surgery I had an appointment with my oncologist. It was that day I received the final pathology report from my surgery. I was diagnosed with Stage II, (please check this as the opening said Stage III)Triple Negative, Aggressive Grade 3, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Breast cancer. In triple-negative breast tumors, the three receptors known to fuel most cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone and HER-2/neu — are not present. That makes the cancer harder to treat because most chemotherapies target one of the three receptors, so triple-negative cancers often require combinatorial therapies. I was told that Triple-negative breast cancers have a relapse pattern that is very different from hormone-positive breast cancers and my risk of relapse is much higher for the first 3–5 years.
With the knowledge of being diagnosed with breast cancer came quick and fast transitory steps in my life. Imagine being faced with a life threatening illness and in the same breath being told you have to give up a successful thriving career and that upon fighting and beating cancer – you cannot return to that career. Now comes the transition from being a creator of businesses and caretaker in my family, to the woman who has to stop everything and fight to live. At that point, I became the one who needed to be looked after. Physically, emotionally and mentally – my battle caused me to have to accept help.
I never would have made it without my support system. I was very blessed to have a support system that was so strong that I literally had to do nothing but Toni… I was able to feel however I wanted to feel at any time. I did not have to talk, I did not have to understand, nor did I have to get it. The role as big sister had been reversed with me now looking to my family and close friends for answers. As a nurse, my sister Mary knew far more than the average person about cancer. She contacted doctors she knew requesting their assistance for referrals. Dr. Keyne Johnson, one of the neurological surgeons she assisted at the hospital became my guardian angel. My Doctor was Dr. Carey, the chief of the division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's medical school. She is also among those studying the biology of breast tumors and was one of the first researchers to point out, in a separate 2006 study, that black women are at "substantially higher risk" of developing the aggressive "triple-negative" breast cancer than any other ethnicity.
My Dream Team: Dr. Theresa L. Robinson, MD, Dr. Jamie E. Terry, MD, Dr. Frankie Ann Holmes, MD, and Dr. Aldona J. Spiegel, MD. Not only did I choose my doctors, and my surgeons, I was able to request that a longtime friend assist my surgeons with my family’s surgeries and my own.
Six months of chemotherapy. My first chemo session my mom, my sisters, my brothers, and several of my friends were there with me. As we walked in the room I saw several patients laughing through tears while ringing a bell. I did not know the significance of ringing the bell until one of the nurses explained it to me. I then looked at my family and friends and started to cry tears of joy, I told them “my day is coming” but they are going to need a new bell when I finish ringing it. We all laughed.
I lost weight, I had no appetite, I lost my nails, toenails, received blood transfusions, my skin was dry. It felt like something was crawling inside my skin, a constant tingling that I could not find, I was often tired and I lost my hair. I did not think losing my hair would’ve affected me as much as it did. Being a hairstylist for over 25 years and having to shave my head was very different. It was even harder for my family and friends to see me bald. But I made the best of it by finding humor about some of the changes that I was dealing with. I called the prosthesis my sling shot because it was so heavy. My wig - I would forget to put it on or leave it at home. Between the two I would sometimes remember to put the wig on and forget my boob or vice versa. That was my life for the moment. We all have to cling to those things that make us laugh and feel normal.
With this new phase life has presented to me, my family and friends have rallied around me with support. When you are in the midst of CANCER you sometimes feel you are all alone; not me. My family and friends stood by me and sometimes held me up when I couldn’t stand for myself. I remember going into my very first surgery, everyone was there but my eldest sister Carmen. As the nurse slowly wheeled me into the operating room she stopped. By this time Carmen called me and told me not to worry, that she was on her way back into town and she was stuck in a little traffic. I looked up at the nurse to see what the hold up was, to find her crying. She then said to me “baby let me get myself together because I can’t take you in there upset.” Now everyone is crying. Although I had Yolanda Adams playing on my iPod reminding me “This Battle is Not Yours, It’s the Lords,” I constantly looked for her, and I refused to go into surgery without seeing Carmen first. The nurse promised me that she would let me know as soon as Carmen arrived and she would make sure that she comes in to see me before my surgery. While praying and asking God to get Carmen there safe, I just needed to see a familiar face, I would close my eyes and see my grandmother, my dad, aunt Lena, and the rest of the family in heaven, telling me, “We got you, it’s ok to close your eyes, they will all be here when you wake up,” and just before the anesthesia kicked in, I heard someone call my name, and it was our family friend who would assist my surgeon. He looked down at me, smiled and said “Toni it’s ok, I’m here.” When I opened my eyes in recovery, Carmen was the first person I saw saying, “Toni, I’m right here, everybody is here.” My family members are the ones who put the joy, passion, love, ambition, motivation, dedication, discipline, and character in my heart. They have always been a source of strength.
Fighting the fight against cancer can take an emotional toll on your spirit. I never knew what to expect with my body’s reactions to the chemo. From the first day of chemo, I felt great all the way there, until it was time for the nurse to insert the chemo into my port. Some days were better than others. I would cry at that time because I knew how I was going to feel in a couple of days. Horrible. But it never stopped me from pushing through the 4 hours I would be there. I would bring my work with me and make phone calls just to keep my mind occupied. I never missed a day of work while going through chemo, I would go to work, leave work and go to chemo, and then go back to work. That was my life for those months.
The biggest transition for me came in March 2012 when my mom was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast cancer, four years after I was diagnosed. That was very hard on the entire family. We all took the same steps that my family took with me, and we kept the same doctors because they knew our family history. Although by the time my mom finished her six months of chemo, my mom and my three sisters had been genetically tested for the BRAC 1 gene. At one point the best news that I received was when I was told that my BRAC 1 and BRAC 2 genetic testing results were negative and not hereditary on either my mother’s or my father’s side. I knew then that my mom and my three sisters would not have to go through what I had just been through. To later find out that one sister was negative for the cancer gene, my mom, two of my sisters, and my first cousin’s test results were positive for the cancer gene. My eldest sister Carmen was scheduled for her first biopsy. Her pathology report was benign but she decided that she would not wait until she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she choose to have a prophylactic double mastectomy on the same day as my mom was having her double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. My younger sisters Mary and Lena also have chosen to have Prophylactic Double Mastectomy, Breast Reconstruction and Full Hysterectomy in 2015.
Coming through the fire of fighting for my life and being a survivor came with several realizations. I was no longer the person that I was before. I joined the staff of Texas Southern University in September 2008 as the Program Coordinator of Operations with the men’s basketball program. Keeping myself busy with the new job and with the student-athletes became very therapeutic for me while going through the meantime. I am now currently a Program coordinator for the Urban Academic Village Program, our mission for the Urban Academic Village is to create a student-centered learning community for incoming freshman students and to give them the leadership and guidance needed to ensure graduation in 4 years.
I found myself really reaching deep within to see what I wanted to create in my life now and what direction I wanted to go, which led me in 2010 to the place of deciding that I now wanted to pursue a path in my life that would require a traditional educational degree.
Receiving my Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Management with a concentration in Business Management in May 2013, graduating Magna Cum Laude, six months of chemo weak, bald, but not discouraged. Having 9 surgeries, mom being diagnosed with breast cancer, and nine family surgeries, this has enabled me to embark on a course of action for my life that would demonstrate that I am a fighter. I have proven that to myself at the end of the day, my life has come full circle.
One constant I have learned throughout my life is that I desire to evolve and progress. In that spirit, I have reached yet another juncture where it is prudent for me to take assessment once again of my life, my goals and my direction. I believe in the importance of arming myself with the necessary tools to excel. Acquiring the knowledge and education necessary to attain my next level of achievement will be highly enhanced by receiving my MBA in August 2015.
I will harness my talents, life experiences, education, strong tenacity, blessings and fervor for success and turn them into yet another successful and philanthropic chapter in my life.
Although, my life may have been shattered, I was not broken… and yet “still I rise.” Today, I am a walking testimony that breast cancer was only a setback for the comeback in life that God has in front of me. My name is Toni Smith and I am a 6-year breast cancer survivor; I believe God is still in the healing business, and “I can do, all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13