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Relay for Life starts tonight

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Cancer survivor shares her story

By Nick Schrager

 

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Washington County's annual Relay for Life event starts tonight at 7 p.m. at St. Catharine College, and runs until 7 a.m. Saturday. Activities are scheduled throughout the night, including a luminaria lighting ceremony at 10 p.m. Friday. Awards will be presented at 6:45 a.m. Saturday before closing.

 

Michelle Smith has been active for years in Relay for Life. She enjoys helping others in the fight against cancer, and she has been involved since she was right out of high school.
Smith has seen family members and friends suffer from cancer, and she has even lost people close to her, but four years ago, the fight became even more personal, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I’m a four-year survivor as of June 3,” she said. “I had two types of cancer at the age of 38, so I’ve really tried to tell everyone, especially ladies, to not listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t get cancer under 40. Sometimes they say don’t worry about a mammogram if you’re under 40, but I know better. I was very lucky to have a doctor that believed otherwise, and that saved my life.”

Smith said she got regular mammograms, and even had a biopsy, but she wasn’t very concerned until a telephone call came with the news that she had cancer.
“I was on my way home from work, and I got a phone call, so I pulled over to the side of the road. I was trying to find something to write on, to write down what they were telling me, and I tried to stay calm,” she said. “I just sat there and cried, and then I called my husband and told him I had cancer.”
Smith’s husband, Sheridan, met her at home. They talked, and made the decision to contact family members and give them the news.
The next step was difficult, but Smith said it was also easy in the end.
“I had to make a decision right then and there. My husband and I talked it over, but there was not a decision to make. It was whether I wanted to live or not,” she said.
Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 16, and on June 3 she underwent surgery. Next came treatments, including chemotherapy.
“They said it was pretty aggressive, so I wanted to get everything done. I went ahead and had a total mastectomy, and did chemo. I was going to do anything they said I needed to do to survive,” she said.
With two young boys at home, a 13- and 10-year-old, Smith was set to fight cancer with all she had. She said her sons, especially her youngest, had questions, including would she lose her hair. She did lose it; it was all gone within 10 days of her first treatment.
Fighting cancer was no laughing matter, but Smith said she knew she was going to face the illness with a grain of salt, not letting it get her down and kill her spirit.
“Going bald was rough, but we got through that,” she said. “My hair was almost all gone, and I went in to get the rest of it cut off and have it shaved. I told the lady to give me the JC Penney mannequin look, completely bald. She cut the rest of it off, and I bought hats and do rags.”
It wasn’t that cancer was a laughing matter, but it was easier to laugh than to sit down and cry. Smith said she had those days, too, but she gave it to God and kept fighting.
“Finally, I had to talk to God. There was nothing else I could do but give it to him. There was no sense in screaming and crying, but I did have those days that I had to go into my room and do that, but I couldn’t just sit there and yell at God about it,” she said. “He had to choose somebody to give it (cancer) to, but I finally came to the conclusion that I would rather he give it to me than one of my kids. I could handle it better than seeing one of my kids suffer. A mother can take a lot of things, but I don’t think I could have taken watching my kids suffer.”
Smith also didn’t want to see other members of her family suffer, so she underwent the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene testing to find out if the cancer was in her family’s genes. She had other members who had been diagnosed, and she wanted to know more for future generations. The tests came back negative, and she was able to share with her nieces and other members of her family that cancer was not passed along genetically in their family, so they had less reason to be concerned, although nobody can ever be sure they will not have cancer at some point in their life. She said she has even learned that if a mother has cancer, and it is genetic, that cannot only be passed to other females, but also males. Sons of women with breast cancer are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer, Smith said.
After being a survivor and a winner in the fight against cancer, Smith wants to continue helping others fight the fight and come out on top.
“I want to help even more now since having loved ones and friends die. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I want to help because I want people to see it can be beat, it can be conquered,” she said. “I also want to show respect for those who have not made that trip and have not survived, because there are so many that don’t. My heart goes out to the ones who are still suffering. There are so many of them.”
As part of her fight, she continues to be a member of the local Relay for Life committee, and also serves as team captain for the Relay team of her employer, St. Catharine College.