Christmas Day, 2011 is a day Cindy Smith will never forget. And not for the surprises in packages under the tree.
That was the day she discovered a lump on one of her breasts.
However, thinking it was just a cyst, the 55-year-old Tidelands Hospice worker did not visit a doctor.
That is until late March when she noticed the texture of the lump had changed.
She visited Dr. Craig Brackett at the Coastal Carolina Breast Center in Murrells Inlet on March 29. That’s something she says she wished she had done earlier in the year.
“He said he did not like the looks of the tissue,” Smith — the mother of two daughters who live in Virginia — recalled during an interview last week. “My mom died of breast cancer so I knew it ran in the family.”
After several follow-up doctor’s visits, Smith underwent lumpectomy outpatient surgery on April 30 which began the long and tedious process of going from cancer patient to cancer survivor.
What followed the surgery was a series of ten radiation treatments. She had to visit the Francis B. Ford Cancer Treatment Center on North Fraser Street in Georgetown twice daily for five days for the procedures. She also had to wear a large catheter in her left breast during and after the radiation treatments.
Even after the treatments, Smith was not out of the woods. She said she was told by her doctors in June she had a 35% chance of a cancer reoccurrence anywhere in her body. Anyone who has more than a 25 percent chance of reoccurrence after radiation must move to the chemotherapy step.
So, Smith underwent four rounds of chemotherapy — one treatment every three weeks.
Smith said, as of now, her medical procedures are complete. But, she is required to take medication for at least five years.
She will return to the doctor in December and she is praying she will be told there is no chance of reoccurrence.
A hard ordeal
Smith said she underwent chemo treatments every third Friday and she was sick and in pain most of the time as a result.
“The radiation treatments were not so bad. But the chemo was bad. I would get sick. I would sleep for three days at a time. I had muscle and joint pain. I had no energy to do anything,” she said. “I had crying spells. I was depressed. Even now, it’s still an effort to even walk around the block.”
Smith said she was able to make it through all the treatments with the major help she received from her husband, Glenn Smith, and her co-workers at Tidelands Hospice.
“My husband has been very strong. He took over everything once I got sick,” she said.
She said the Hospice staff worked with her schedule and some co-workers donated leave time so she would not lose pay while she was being treated.
“They picked up my patient load. They were wonderful,” said Smith, who has been in the medical care profession for more than 35 years.
Even though she is still awaiting word from her doctor about her future cancer prognosis, Smith is a long way down the road of recovery.
She is back at work helping Hospice patients cope with their ordeals. She had been a home-visit representative but now she will be stationed at the Tidelands Hospice Center on North Fraser Street.
As part of her job, she deals with dying patients, many of whom have the same disease she feels she has successfully conquered.
“It helps me understand what they are feeling. The tiredness. The lack of appetite. The readiness to give up they sometimes feel,” she said.
Smith also inspired others earlier this month when she was lead marcher when Georgetown Hospital System held its annual "In the Pink" walk in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness.
The two-mile walk from Waccamaw Medical Park East to the Marsh Walk — which attracted more than 1,500 participants — benefited the hospital's indigent breast cancer fund which helps the uninsured receive treatment.
Kathy Erbe, Tidelands Hospice home care clinical director, has known Smith for more than two years and said everyone was devastated when they heard the diagnosis.
“She is the most compassionate nurse and is devoted to her patients and their families,” Erbe said. “When she was undergoing treatments, she acted like her problems were secondary because she was so concerned about her patients. She tried to work and was really upset when she could not see her families.”
She said watching Smith deal with her patients is “an inspiration” to the Tidelands staff.
“Her knowledge and skills are an asset,” she said.
Smith also wants to use her experience to send a message out to younger women.
She said it is very important for women to give themselves a self-exam every month and to see a doctor once a year.
“If they find anything unusual when they do their self-exam, go to the doctor. Do not wait,” she said.
By Scott Harper
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