After moving from East St. Louis in 1990, Stacey Smith has come to love the melting pot that is Northwest Indiana in the nearly three decades that she’s called Gary her home. So when Stacey was diagnosed with breast cancer - ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) - in 2016, her family, friends, and healthcare professionals have helped her overcome every obstacle that she faced.
Prior to the diagnosis, Stacey had not had a family history of cancer or other such health problems, so it came as quite a surprise.
“There was really no family history of any sort of cancer; no breast cancer, lung cancer, or anything like that,” Stacey said. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I work in retail so I’m not in an environment where I’m not breathing in harsh chemicals or anything like that. It was definitely surprising.”
Stacey’s experience is the perfect example of how important it is to regularly go in for mammograms and other health check-ups. In November of 2015, she had her yearly appointment which showed no signs of cancer. Months later, in March of 2016, Stacey had begun experiencing sharp pains in her left breast which ultimately led to her going back to the doctor.
It was then, in May of 2016, that her doctors suggested an X-ray and ultimately a biopsy immediately after the X-ray results came back.
“They took quite a few samples and within a few days I got a call that my results had come back,” described Stacey. “I received a phone call from Stacey Knox at Methodist Hospitals, and she said that I needed to come in. A few minutes later, I received a call from my primary doctor, which she never calls unless it’s something important.”
“Her voice didn’t sound normal and she asked, ‘Where’s your husband because we need you to come into the office.’ We went to her office and my primary doctor isn’t just a doctor, she’s a friend and we’ve known her for many years. We were in her office and I could just see the look on her face. She had gotten some scans and some information from Methodist.”
The news Stacey received was both good and bad. The biopsy came back positive for cancer, however they caught it quickly. Stacey’s cancer was in Stage 1. It had traveled to her lymph nodes but, luckily, the cancer hadn’t had a great deal of time to develop.
“I was speechless. I was a little bit frantic and my husband was too, so I knew that I had try to keep it together for the both of us,” said Stacey. “We left her office and I spoke with Stacey right away to get some testing, as well as schedule an appointment with the surgeon. The following day I saw the plastic surgeon and Stacey helped do all of this legwork for me which was amazing because I was a bit frantic still.”
“I’ve never had to deal with this so I was nervous and scared. I was happy they had found it early but, then again, I thought, ‘Why me?’ I then started to think, ‘Why not me?’ I’m strong, I’m a fighter, I don’t quit, and I feel the reason ‘why’ was because I needed to be an advocate for going and getting your mammograms, and getting tested regularly. I was going to be that voice that people needed to hear!”
What Stacey experienced with the staff at Methodist Hospitals was encouraging and they helped to answer every question that she had. Shortly thereafter, she had a double mastectomy the next month and - in her words - she’s been happy and smiling ever since. Although the mass had grown rather quickly, because it was caught so early she didn’t have to have radiation. Stacey has been an advocate for getting tested and became a spokeswoman for survivors since receiving word that all of the cancer had been removed from her body.
“My daughter was supposed to go away to college, but she decided to stay home and support me through this," she explained. "My mom is very, very supportive and she stayed with me after the surgery just to make sure that I was okay.”
“My sisters, my brother, my church family, and prayers - all of those things helped along the way. I don’t like to be the person who seems like, ‘Woe is me.’ I’m a fighter and I’m always smiling. People might get into that depressed-mode but that’s not me. I love to see the joy in everything and that’s just the kind of person I am. I look at it like, ‘What if I wouldn’t have gone to my doctor's appointment?’ It’s so important and my situation represents exactly why that is.”
Stacey has taken that positive spirit and, through her work speaking as a cancer survivor to individuals or groups, she’s reached and impacted many throughout the region on the importance of routine checkups and examinations. She’s also been very active with nonprofit and advocacy organizations from around Lake County.
“I’ve volunteered for Phil’s Friends, an organization here in Crown Point, where we’ll make boxes for individuals who have gone through or are going through their battle with cancer. And not just breast cancer, but all types of cancers,” Stacey said. “I participate and help raise money during the walks; I talk at schools and I’ve spoken at my daughter's school, Thea Bowman, before she graduated.”
“I also like to meet and speak with individuals. If I’m walking through the mall and I see someone with a pink ribbon, I’ll say, ‘Hey! Tell me about your story, why are you wearing your ribbon?’ Some people need that because they might not have someone to talk to. While I’m in the doctor's office I like to speak with other patients to give them, I wouldn’t say hope, but encouraging words. Some people are by themselves or have family members who drop them off. To communicate with them and say, ‘How are you?’ can have such an impact.”
Although Stacey had a big group of family and friends around her during her battle with cancer, she knows that’s not always the case. By working to connect with survivors she’s hoping to bring some encouragement and relief into their life, and to let them know to never give up the fight and, although it can be incredibly difficult at times, to keep a positive attitude.