Walking by faith

One woman's story of redemption and survival
By Allison Richmond | Oct 17, 2016

Cancer never arrives at the doorstep as a welcome guest, but when Jennifer Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015, she knew it was God’s timing.

Up until just a few months before her diagnosis, she had been working a stressful job, raising two sons along with her husband and had not enjoyed a close walk with God for some time.

In October 2015, she and her husband Jason attended a Walk to Emmaus event during which she reconnected with Jesus for the first time in about eight years. As a family, they began to attend Long’s Chapel where they found a supportive church family.

Around the same time, she resigned from her stressful job in the mental health care field. In December 2015, she returned to a profession that held her heart — teaching. She accepted a position as a teaching assistant at Hazelwood Elementary, a move that she would come to appreciate even more after her diagnosis.

During a regular self-exam in December, Smith said she felt a lump that caused her some concern. The lump was confirmed by her OB/GYN doctor who also felt a lump in the same breast. Her regularly scheduled mammogram in February confirmed the diagnosis.

Smith has a family history of breast and gynecological cancer and knowing that history, she said she has always been careful to monitor her health with regular self-exams and mammograms.

She even had genetic testing done in 2009 to find out if she carried markers for hereditary cancer risk. The test came back negative them. What she learned later is that testing methods have advanced significantly since then and anyone at risk should be tested again.

“I am a passionate advocate for early detection, because I know it saves lives,” she said.

After her diagnosis, her doctors advised her to repeat the genetic testing, using the new methods. This time, on March 23, 2016, the results came back positive for the BRCA1 mutation, a marker for hereditary cancer risk.

Those results helped guide my treatment decisions, Smith said, especially the decision to opt for a bi-lateral mastectomy following four rounds of chemotherapy.

“I wanted them to take as much tissue as possible, to eliminate as much risk of recurrence as we could,” she said.

Smith began the chemotherapy treatment in the spring, causing her to have to take several unpaid days off of work to do so, since she had not yet accumulated paid time off at her new job. Knowing that she had a supportive workplace at Hazelwood Elementary though, helped tremendously, Smith said.

At just 39 at the time of her diagnosis, Smith is younger than the typical breast cancer patient, but cancer pays no mind to age and no cancer journey is the same. She celebrated turning 40 the same month that she had her last dose of chemo.

She spent the remainder of the summer recovering from chemo, spending time with family and preparing for her surgery on Sept. 13.

Once again, she said, her support network was what got her through.

“I would definitely say the supportive workplace, my personal relationship with a higher power, the support of our church family at Long’s Chapel and the love and support of my husband, family and close friends made all the difference over this last year,” Smith said.

Jennifer and Jason were high school sweethearts and have been married for 17 years. Together they have two sons, 12-year-old Jacob, a student at Waynesville Middle School and 9-year-old Jonah, a student at Clyde Elementary.

Jonah has epilepsy and is autistic, so completely understanding what his mom was going through can be a challenge sometimes.

“He calls the hats I wore to cover the loss of my hair, my wigs,” Smith said. “He understands what is happening in his own way.”

For Jacob, dealing with his mom’s illness is a little different. His mom reports that he uses humor to deal with his emotions and has written journal entries about the experience at school.

“It’s been important for us to keep up our routines as a family, too,” Jennifer said. “We still drop off the kids at school and take Jacob to football practice and games.”

Keeping up the energy to do so has been the hardest part, she said.

“I was supposed to go on a mission trip with Jacob, but due to illness related to the chemotherapy I couldn’t do it, so his dad went in my place. I also missed a trip to Universal Studios that I planned to take with Jacob.”

Jennifer said she missed a lot of family stuff over the summer when she just wasn’t feeling well enough to keep up her usual schedule.

She said that as a parent of a special needs child, over the years she has learned to advocate for him. Those skills have come in handy for her as she advocates now for herself during her cancer journey.

It also helped that her mother is a 20-year breast cancer survivor who was able to offer the unique support and guidance only a survivor could.

Jennifer reports she is doing well post chemo and is recovering well from the mastectomy surgery. She and her doctors decided that a full hysterectomy would decrease her chances of a recurrence, given her family history, so that is the next step in her treatment plan.

She will continue to see her oncologist every three months and will keep up the self-exams to closely monitor her health.

“Although finances have been tight, and this has definitely been a stressful period in my life, I know that God is in control, and I am so grateful for the support I have received, especially from some special ladies,” Jennifer said.

“I have received lots of support, especially from Jenny Owens of Waynesville, Cheryl Clark of Franklin, and Julie Hendricks of Waynesville, all survivors who have helped me so much,” she said.

Jennifer said she also feels that giving back is an important part of her recovery and has begun to participate in several cancer support organizations in the local area.

Recently, she has been working with Compassion That Compels, a non-profit and ministry that provide what they call Compassion Bags to women undergoing any type of cancer treatment.

The bags are filled with comfort items, gift cards and items of inspiration that are meant to encourage and provide a boost to women at a difficult time in their life.

Jennifer received a bag and has since participated in handing out bags to other women through the boutique Altar’d State’s Greenville, South Carolina location.

Jennifer said she has this advice for women, especially those with a family history — “Keep up your self-exams and scheduled mammograms. Take care of yourself and even if you’ve done the genetic testing in the past, consider redoing it since technology has changed.”