WebMD senior writer Miranda Hitti interviewed breast cancer survivors as part of a series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The series, called “Me & the Girls,” explores the personal stories of these women after they were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Breast cancer survivor Ilene Smith, MS, RD, 49, lives in the New York area. In late October 2007, Smith felt a lump in her left breast while on a conference call for work. "I got cold, and so I put my hand under my arm, and I felt the lump" through her thin T-shirt, recalls Smith, who was 47 at the time. "I hung up pretty quickly from the call; I tried to get off quickly because it was bothering me."
Smith, who had two friends who'd had breast cancer the year before, didn't waste any time making an appointment to get the lump checked out. After a biopsy and further tests, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer that was not sensitive to the hormone estrogen.
First, Smith consulted two breast cancer surgeons who agreed that a lumpectomy was what was called for, not a mastectomy. She also got genetic testing, which showed that she did not have a BRCA gene mutation linked to breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
Smith says it took several weeks to get the results back from the genetic test. "That was a very stressful period, waiting for the results," she says. To deal with the stress, she says she kept busy.
Recovering from the lumpectomy surgery "wasn't bad," Smith says. She had her surgery before Thanksgiving, took two days off, worked from home after that, and returned to her public relations work after the Thanksgiving weekend.
Taking ownership: Smith says she would advise someone newly diagnosed with breast cancer to "take as much ownership for the [treatment] decisions as possible. Certainly, you want to engage your friends and family, but I think that you don't want to let the shock and fear take over to the point where you're letting others make the decisions for you."
"I'm the type of person who likes to be in control over my life," Smith says. "When you have cancer, it's very easy to feel that you don't have control over what's happening to you. And the mantra that I said to myself throughout the whole process was, 'I don't have control over whether or not I have cancer; I do have control over how I deal with it' ...I would advise people to really look at all their options and not just move forward in a vacuum."
No comparisons: During her treatment, Smith says she felt frustrated when she heard about women accomplishing impressive feats while dealing with breast cancer. "The basic fact of the matter is dealing with breast cancer itself is hard enough," Smith says. "You do want to maintain a sense of normalcy, but it's OK to say you can't do something because you don't feel well enough... You don't have to be a hero."
"You should never, ever feel guilty because you can't do what the other person did. You can only do what your body tells you you can do, and not feel guilty, because this is the one time in your life, quite honestly, when it's OK to take care of yourself first and foremost."
Accepting help: "My close friends and family were wonderful," Smith says. People a little further removed were well-intentioned, saying things like, "if there's anything I can do.... "
"I'm not faulting them; they were very nice and lovely, but what would have been better is if they'd just rang my bell one day and said, 'Can I walk your dog for you this afternoon?' or 'I'm going to the store, can I get you anything?'" Smith says. "You're not going to pick up the phone and call somebody who you don't know that well to ask for help."
In trouble for laughing: Smith says she recommends that breast cancer patients "maintain a sense of humor and to allow yourself to have fun, laugh at yourself, let your friends laugh with you, let your family laugh with you. That's one thing we never stopped doing."
One time, that laughter got a little out of hand. "They had to start giving us a private room at chemo because we once got yelled at for making too much noise... we were just laughing, and some woman came over and shushed us and said her husband was sick. And I was sitting there with IVs all over me, and I'm thinking, 'Well yeah, that would make two of us.' It's again, not having control over whether you have cancer, but how you deal with it."
Her new normal: Nearly two years after her diagnosis, Smith says it's been hard finding her "new normal."
"I'm still struggling with that," she says. "The impact doesn't go away when the treatment ends." Her advice: Take the pressure off and be patient with yourself.
"It's going to take time. It may not be a few months. It may not be a year. It may take a couple of years. You've had cancer. You have to give yourself the time to absorb that afterwards."
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