From caretaker to patient

With a history of cancers in her family, a Seymour nurse decided she wasn’t going to wait until the recommended age of 40 to have her first mammogram.

Beth Smith had a baseline mammogram performed when she turned 35 in 2006. There was nothing unusual about the results, so doctors told her she could start regular breast screenings in five years.

In January 2011, after going back for her first regular mammogram, Smith would learn she had breast cancer. She was 40 years old.

“On that mammogram, they found something they said were microcalcifications, so they wanted me to come back so they could do a biopsy,” Smith said.

Microcalcifications are tiny specks of calcium in the breast that may or may not indicate the presence of cancer. They have no visual symptoms, such as a lump, and are sometimes seen in the very early development stages of breast cancer.

“It’s an abnormality,” Smith said. “They found something that was abnormal.”

She had a needle biopsy done, but at that point, there was no confirmation of cancer, so she tried not to let it stress her out.

“Anytime someone tells you something is abnormal, you’re going to worry,” she said. “I Googled what that could mean. As a nurse, there are always questions.”

Smith worked on the fourth floor of Schneck Medical Center at the time. Shortly after the biopsy, she saw her family doctor at the nurses station on her floor.

It wasn’t unusual for family doctors to be on the floor checking on patients, she said.

“I was in a room right across from the nurses station, so I saw her standing there, and she was looking through some papers,” Smith said. “I knew she didn’t have any patients on the floor that day. I immediately thought, ‘What is she doing here? Is she here to see me?'”

Smith said prior to seeing her doctor at the nurses station, she had heard the hospital page the pathologist.

“I knew she had spoken with the pathologist. The wheels immediately started to turn,” Smith said.

She approached her doctor, who asked if they could talk somewhere private.

“I said, ‘I don’t like this,’ and she said, ‘Neither do I,'” Smith said.

The results had come back, and Smith had ductal carcinoma in situ, a noninvasive breast cancer.

If she had to have cancer, Smith said this was “a blessing” because the cancer cells had not spread to the surrounding tissue. Therefore, it wasn’t life-threatening.

“I kind of let it sink in, and I said, ‘OK, it is what it is, and now I just have to deal with it, so where do we go from here?'” Smith said. “At that point, I was fine, but once I responded like that, my doctor started crying.”

It was her doctor’s tears, not the diagnosis, that led to Smith breaking down and crying herself.

Smith had to excuse herself to go to the restroom to collect her thoughts and get her emotions in check.

“I said, ‘I’m going to pull myself together so I can go back and take care of my patients,'” Smith said. “As nurses, that’s what we do. We take care of our families, we take care of our patients and lots of times, we take care of ourselves last.”

Her doctor provided the name of the oncologist and told the other nurses on the floor to cover Smith’s patients so she could go home.

“I came to the conclusion that was probably a good idea,” Smith said.

On the way home, she called her husband, retired Seymour Police Officer Billy Smith, to break the news.

“He sounded very calm and collected,” Beth said. “I found out later, he wasn’t as calm and collected as I initially thought he was.”

Not long after the diagnosis, she met with an oncologist and had a lumpectomy to remove the abnormal cells. Because her cancer was noninvasive, she was able to treat it with surgery and radiation and no chemotherapy.

Had she not had her mammogram at 40, Smith said she likely would not be alive today. That’s why it angers her that insurance companies and other groups recommend women get their first mammogram at age 50.

“If I would have waited until I was 50, I would have probably not survived it,” she said. “I was told that within three years, it would have been invasive. Then add another seven years after that.”

Smith said when it comes to breast cancer, too much focus is placed on women of a certain age, when it affects men and women of all ages.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate against age or gender, and that’s what people need to understand,” she said. “There are young women in their 20s who are diagnosed with breast cancer. There are men who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Although it’s good to be educated on what disease you have and what treatments are available, Smith said you also can drive yourself crazy reading all of the information out there on the Internet, especially the bad stuff.

“My husband finally took the computer away from me,” she said. “I had to step back from that and say, ‘OK, this is in one person’s hands, and I have to trust God, and it’s going to be fine.'”

During her radiation treatments, Smith said the worst part was skin irritation.

“It’s like a horrible, horrible sunburn,” she said. “But I am so blessed because we have such a great resource center in our cancer center.”

She did treatments at the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center five days a week for seven weeks.

Smith was able to continue working and didn’t miss a day because of the cancer.

“That’s not a testament to me. It’s a testament to the resources we have and my work family here at Schneck,” she said. “I would just go across the street to the cancer center, and the nurses would watch my group of patients until I came back.”

Without the cancer center here, she would have been forced to go to Indianapolis or Louisville for treatment and wouldn’t have been able to continue working, she said.

Smith had to do followup mammograms every six months for three years and now does an annual mammogram just like anyone else.

“I can’t tell you for those first three years and really five years that you aren’t a wreck every time you have a mammogram,” she said. “You’re just waiting for them to come back and say there’s something that doesn’t look right.”

Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case for Smith, who is now close to being a six-year survivor.

She said the ordeal brought her closer to her family, including her husband, her two children and three stepchildren.

“It was scary, especially for my youngest, who was 12 at the time, for mom to be diagnosed with cancer,” she said.

Being a cancer survivor has made her thankful for every day of her life.

“You don’t know what is in your future. You don’t know what tomorrow brings,” she said.

But Smith said she also learned something about herself during her battle with cancer.

“I think the biggest thing I got out of it was that I always felt like I was a good nurse, but I think it made me a better nurse,” she said. “When you go through something like that, it really makes you see the opposite side of it. It helps you see what your patients go through, especially in a time of crisis.”

Now, when she talks with patients going through cancer, she can relate better.

“A lot of times the patient thinks, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know,'” she said. “I do know. Now, I’ve walked in those shoes.”

Since her diagnosis, treatment and recovery, Smith has been involved with the Pink Ribbon Connection in Indianapolis, a resource and support center for Hoosiers touched by cancer.

For the past two years, with the help of Southern Indiana Center for the Arts, Smith has organized Canvas for Cancer, a social painting fundraiser. Last spring, 54 people participated in the event at Seymour Middle School by painting a cancer ribbon-themed canvas to take home.

“It’s something we plan to continue to do,” she said.

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.