Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Editor and Manager, Content Development
In August 2010, Lisa Smart, then 47, took her oldest daughter to Baptist Medical Center to follow up on issues she was having with her back. Her husband, a U.S. Army Major, had recently retired, and the two had moved from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to La Coste, Texas. In the chaos of the move, Lisa had forgotten to schedule her yearly April mammogram. When she noticed the hospital’s imaging center, she remembered and made an appointment.
The image showed a spot that was suspicious. A biopsy in October confirmed she had stage II, estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.
“I was so confused when they told me, because I have no family history of breast cancer,” says Lisa. “I had my yearly mammograms, but I never thought that I could actually have breast cancer. If we hadn’t gone to the hospital that day, I wouldn’t have remembered to get a mammogram at all.”
The Army’s medical insurance referred Lisa to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for further treatment. BAMC uses a team approach, so Lisa was assigned several oncology specialists who worked together on her case. The facility offers classes on what to expect during treatment as well as life after cancer programs, where Lisa learned about LBBC.
“It’s something I had to learn to handle,” says Lisa.
Lisa had her breast removed before Thanksgiving and began four rounds of chemotherapy before Christmas. Leading up to and throughout her treatment, she couldn’t help but notice signs that things were going to be OK.
These included a memory of a co-worker who had breast cancer and reminded her to always get mammograms, even if she didn’t have a history; a conversation with her surgeon before her mastectomy, when he told her he prayed before her operation; the close timing of family members’ birthdays, or holidays, with each of her treatment steps. And finally, the most notable: the day after she finished her third round of chemotherapy, it snowed in San Antonio, something that only happens every few years.
“I felt like God was telling me something,” she says. “Sometimes He just has you go through things.”
But it wasn’t an easy path. Chemotherapy felt like an out-of-body experience, Lisa says. She bought a wig for work and church, but the wigs were itchy and it bothered her to wear someone else’s hair. She switched to head wraps instead.
“I cut my hair very short before I started chemo, but even with that it still shocked me,” says Lisa. “I just combed through it and cried. I thought I was crazy to be vain enough to worry about my hair so much.”
Her family supported her along the way, driving her to appointments and asking their prayer groups to pray for her. She spent time writing thank-you notes. Eventually her hair started growing back, just in time for her son’s college graduation.
Lisa is now considering reconstruction as well as reduction of her healthy breast, but she hasn’t yet decided. She wears a silicone prosthesis but feels awkward at the gym, where she can’t wear it. It will be a decision made in time.
“I’ve been with my husband for 30 years, so there aren’t going to be any grand changes,” she jokes.
Living in the country left Lisa with time for reflection. She began journaling, and when she started to experience chemobrain, she made careful notes of what had to be done during the day. It was then she realized her cancer experience was leading her to change different parts of her life.
“I realized I wanted to do something entirely different. If you’re given a second chance, don’t go back and do something you did before,” she says.
Before, Lisa described herself as someone who “stood back and never said anything.” Today, she is active in a support group at BAMC that meets once a month. She tries her best to pass on information and help others going through breast cancer.
“It was the longest time before I could talk about it without crying,” she says. “I felt like it was something I did wrong. But now I can step up and say ‘You can do this.’”