The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 13, 2012

Life-saving routine: Daily self-exam helped woman catch aggressive cancer early

Arlene Johns
ajohns@tribdem.com

— Patti Smith of the Wilmore area is a firm believer in daily self-examinations between yearly mammograms.

She thinks the routine she performs each day during her shower may have saved her life.

“A mammogram is once a year,” she said. “Self-examination you can do every day.”

Smith, 63, found the peanut-sized lump in November.

“One day it was not there, the next day it was.”

Smith admits she was scared, but made an appointment with her primary-care physician, who sent her to Dr. Patti Stefanick.

A biopsy revealed cancer, and Smith was sent to see Dr. Rashid Awan, an oncologist with UPMC’s John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center.

Smith said she was told her cancer was a very aggressive type that had spread to her lymph nodes.

So in February, she started chemotherapy.

The six months of treatments caused her hair to fall out and made her feel tired much of the time. She also had sores in her mouth and couldn’t taste her food.

“But overall, I did pretty good,” she said.

“(The medical people) couldn’t get over how well I did,” she said. “They tell me I had the best attitude.

“I told them that I am not going to let it get me down.”

In August, she had a mastectomy and had seven lymph nodes removed – five of which were cancerous. She had reconstruction surgery done at the same time.

Last week, she learned the results from positron emission tomography/computed tomography scans, which showed the cancer had not spread.

“I’m on cloud nine right now,” she said the day she learned the results.

Smith has started on a daily regimen of radiation that will last for several weeks.

She will need to be vigilant as “there is a possibility that the cancer could come back because of the type of cancer it is,” she said.

Smith said she expects to have exams every three months “probably for the rest of my life.”

But she is OK with that.

“I know I have a good (medical) team behind me that’s going to get me through it,” she said.

Although she credits her “good team of doctors for giving me back my life,” Smith also gives thanks to God.  

“Everyone’s prayers made the difference,” she said. “I had prayers from people I didn’t even know.”

It was those prayers and the support of so many – including her three children, eight grandchildren and husband, Ken, that kept her going.

“I had so much support from everyone, and they would not let me get down,” she said.

Smith, who spent years working at local banks and for United Cerebral Palsy, now focuses on her woodcrafting.

She used to sell her outdoor ornamental items at craft shows, but now enjoys doing workshops to teach others how to make their own crafts.

“My goal in life is to put smiles on people’s faces,” she said. “And when they do a project they have the biggest smile you have ever seen.”

Her advice to other women going through breast cancer is to “just keep busy and concentrate on getting better.”

She also has advice for women who have not been touched with breast cancer.

“Make sure you do your self-examinations,” she said. “I never thought I was going to wake up that morning and have my shower and find a lump.”

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.