We’re kicking off our new blog series, Hear My Voice, with Mary Jennings-Smith. Mary reflects on her metastatic breast cancer journey, going from newly diagnosed to doing what she enjoys.
As I sat waiting for news of my CT scan in the patient room of my oncologists’ office, my heart was beating so fast that I could hardly breathe. Just when I thought I couldn’t endure another moment, my doctor walks in carrying a bunch of papers. I knew by the look on his face that it wasn’t good news. My mind went blank. I did hear the words “metastatic,” “bone and lymph node” but I was barely absorbing the information. Fortunately, my husband was there and he filled in some of the blanks later that day. I always have someone come with me whenever I meet with my oncologist as the stress of dealing with metastatic cancer can make it difficult to retain what is discussed. This person always took notes while I struggled to retain the verbal information.
My oncologist explained that I would need to start chemotherapy right away as the anti-hormonal medicines were not working. Before I met with him again, I had a chance to read the pathology reports of my CT scans and the tumor marker test. I brought a drawing of a skeleton to our next meeting and asked him to point out exactly where the cancer had come back. He was glad I had brought the drawing, as to read the films of my skeleton were difficult for me usually because of tears in my eyes. I was unclear if the tumors were on the outside of the bones or on the inside. He explained that they were on the inside.
I realized that I didn’t really know very much about my breast cancer, especially what it meant to have metastatic disease. No one wants to believe the cancer may come back. I was originally diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). In 2005, publications related to IBC were pretty gloomy and caused me a lot of anxiety. I stopped reading content on the Internet while going through my initial treatments. Now, however, I needed to know more about my disease and also take a look at what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I needed to feel like I was in some control. With the recurrence, my doctor assured me that there were lots of chemotherapies he could use that would keep me alive for many years.
That first year of treating the metastatic disease was really difficult. I fought depression, which was compounded by the death of my mother. Fortunately, I had only one more year of work before I could retire. I was in academia in an administrative faculty role. I knew that I couldn’t keep up the level of professional responsibilities while going through years of chemotherapy. And, I wanted to spend whatever time I had left with my family and traveling to places around the world that I wanted to see. My oncologist has been great about giving me “chemo breaks” so I can do these activities. He truly believes that quality of life is important, and I have learned what that means to me.
It has been 6 years since I was told the cancer had come back. I have had my ups and downs, but mostly ups. I appreciate each day and the friends and family who share it with me. I wish I had more flexibility with my time, for example not having to spend time getting tests and chemo. But I have actually been able to do things like read lots of books, which has given me immense pleasure. I think that is the key to living with breast cancer…find joy in life!
Mary Jennings-Smith is a mom and a nana to three grandchildren, which she says is such a rewarding experience and keeps her going through tough times. She is also an educator, and has taught, counseled, and worked as a curriculum specialist at her local community college for 35 years. Mary is a continual student because she loves to learn new things about our world and its people. She enjoys traveling, reading, and taking classes for seniors.
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