In April, Susan Smith noticed that her dachshund, Max, began acting strangely protective, following her every move.
On May 5, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "A lot of people say dogs can sense these things," she said.
One day, Smith happened to feel a small lump in her left breast. Though she thought nothing of it at the time, it had significantly increased in size a week later. At her oldest son's insistence, she went in for a mammogram, which was quickly followed by another and then an ultrasound.
The radiologist suggested she consult a surgeon. Doctors discovered that Smith had a rapidly growing tumor, and she started chemotherapy treatment on June 13, two days before her 57th birthday. Your relationship with the people treating you is of the utmost importance, Smith said.
"I had to let it go and really comprehend that whatever happens to me is God's will not the doctors'," she said. " I've never questioned anything they've done or suggested." She adores her oncologist, Dr. Miriam Atkins, who works at Augusta Oncology. "She's wonderful and personable, and she's great at describing everything in layman's terms so I'll understand," Smith said.
Throughout June and July, she went to Augusta every other week for chemotherapy treatments, spending hours hooked up to an IV.
She said that was the saddest part of her ordeal because she would look around the room full of recliner after recliner of patients, some as young as 16 or 17. "You would hear people get sick a lot, and they can't help that," Smith said. "But more often I would hear laughter. A lot of the time we would share what we were laughing about.
The lighthearted days are always easier." The chemo occasionally caused her blood pressure to drop dangerously low, and she was rushed to the hospital twice. She lost her hair and her eyebrows. It also forced small sacrifices, like forgoing certain food and drinks.
"During chemo, I had a salty taste in my mouth all the time," she said. "I couldn't have anything sweet. Imagine putting salt on ice cream and eating it. I couldn't drink sweet tea, but believe me, I'm drinking it now." Eventually, her oncologist said they could stop the chemo because the tumor had shrunk enough to operate. Smith's surgery, a mastectomy, took place Friday, Sept. 9. The surgeon performed a biopsy, removing 11 lymph nodes, three of which tested positive for metastatic cancer.
After the surgery, Smith had a request for her doctor - she wanted to take the tumor home with her. Atkins said they needed it for examination, to be cut up, dissected and tested. "I just wanted to see what was trying to destroy my body," Smith said.
This week she will begin radiation treatment every day, Monday to Friday, for six weeks straight. So far, Smith has gotten through the experience thanks to friends, family and faith. "I don't know if you could list me as a survivor yet, but I'm surviving," she said. She has a strong support system spread throughout Thomson, Augusta and North Augusta, S.C., including her husband of nearly 24 years, Jeff; three children; five grandchildren; four sisters; a brother, her best friend, Wanda Sisson, and many other friends.
"A lot of people don't want to talk about it or are ashamed," she said. "I've never had a down day, and I don't feel sorry for myself." She has had a continuous stream of friends stopping by, telephone calls, flowers, food and greeting cards, which she plans to eventually compile in a scrapbook. She and her siblings are also closer than they have ever been. When she has appointments in Augsuta, she and her sisters meet for lunch or go shopping.
They have seen each other more in the last few months than the 10 years before that. Smith has tried to keep her life as normal as possible by continuing to eat out, go to friends' houses and attend football games.
She said she has been blessed to receive such a tremendous outpouring of support. "Even once you don't have the cancer anymore, you have to deal with it for the rest of your life," she said.
And Smith has a lot of plans for her life. In the short term, she looks forward to seeing her youngest son graduate from Georgia Southern and taking a trip to the mountains in Pigeon Forge with her husband. In the long term, she treasures each day she spends with her grandchildren. She will enjoy watching them grow up, offering her love and support along the way.
Smith also wants to provide assistance to other people who are diagnosed with cancer.
She has already visited the local American Cancer Society office. "It's going to be awhile, but after I finish my treatment, the first thing I'm going to do is put my name on the list to be a supporter," she said. Despite everything she has dealt with, she has remained positive and has never been afraid. "Psalms 23 is usually read at funerals, but actually cancer is the shadow of death, and I haven't feared any evil," she said.