Rev. Dr. Yolanda Smith
It has been three years since I heard the devastating words “it’s cancer, breast cancer.” Stunned by the news, I sat motionless in my chair with my best friend Bonita by my side. I wanted desperately to hear everything the doctor was saying, but my mind began to race, and I found myself imagining what my life would be like from that day forward. “I have cancer,” I thought, “and I am entering into a world of uncertainty, of doctors, nurses, hospitals, needles, tests, and surgery.” I also imagined, to my dismay, that my life would be consumed with fatigue, discomfort, despair, sickness, pain, and emotion, lots and lots of emotion. This scenario felt foreign to me because it had never been my reality. The prospect of it all seemed inconceivable – absolutely unbelievable! For I had always been a vibrant and energetic person, full of life. But as I sat in the doctor’s office, I wondered: “What does life hold for me now?”
My journey with breast cancer began on Wednesday, March 9, 2005, when I discovered a lump under my right arm. I was not overly alarmed at the time because I had a history of swollen glands and lymph nodes, which were generally benign. This lump, however, felt unusual; it was smooth, hard, and stationary compared to the rolling, grainy, lumps and bumps I remembered from the past. I decided to wait a couple of days to see if it would go away.
A few days later, I went in for a mammogram and ultrasound, which soon revealed a mass, about the size of a pea, deep insight my right breast. The mass was undetectable through the physical exam. But it showed up clearly on both tests. Although I had had regular mammograms over the years, in that moment, I truly understood the value of mammograms in conjunction with self-examinations. In addition to the diagnosis of cancer, these and other tests confirmed that the cancer had spread from the original location in the breast to the lymph node under my right arm. The next few days and weeks were consumed by a flurry of doctor’s appointments, exams, tests and consultations. When all was said and done, I was facing 16 weeks of chemotherapy, surgery (a lumpectomy and the removal of about 27 lymph nodes), and six and a half weeks of radiation. The first two weeks after the diagnosis, I found myself on an emotional roller coaster with my emotions ranging from numbness to disbelief, from sadness to uncertainty, and from anxiety to hope.
Once the initial shock wore off, however, I decided to fight the cancer with every ounce of my being. This meant that I had to rely heavily on the grace of God, my family, friends, colleagues, and the medical professionals attending to my care. As the weeks and months passed by, my support system became a critical part of my journey. I soon discovered how much their love, prayers, encouragement, and acts of kindness bolstered my faith and gave me the courage to fight this disease no matter how difficult or unpleasant. I was particularly inspired by the words of the nurse practitioner, Molly Meyer, who encouraged me, during my initial consultation, to live my life as fully and completely as possible during this time. “You are not an invalid,” she said, and from that point on, I refused to think of myself as an invalid or as a person without hope. I was about to engage in the fight of my life and I was determined more than ever to live!
It was fortuitous that my diagnosis came at the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to Easter. For me, as an ordained Baptist minister, this has always been a time of deep reflection and prayer. However, with the diagnosis of cancer, I entered the week keenly aware of God’s love and healing presence in my life. Consequently, I never felt angry nor afraid. And although it was difficult at times, I was determined to go through my treatment with a positive outlook, standing firm on my faith. As I reflected on the death and resurrection of Christ, I was inspired by the hymn “Because He Lives.” It soon became my theme song, my affirmation for living. I wanted to learn whatever God wanted to teach me during this time. I wanted to hear and receive God’s word deeply into my spirit, and when it was all over, I wanted God to use me as a source of encouragement for others going through similar challenges in their lives.
I completed my treatment on December 15, 2005, and while I was cancer free for two and a half years,
I am undergoing treatment once again due to a recurrence of the cancer. Despite this new challenge, my doctors and I are optimistic that the cancer will be in remission soon. As I continue my journey toward healing and wholeness, I thank God for the beauty of everyday and I take comfort in the prayers of my family, friends, and loved ones. As a survivor, I am committed to supporting other women (especially African-American women) with breast cancer. To this end, I conduct workshops on spirituality and healing, and I make myself available to speak with individual women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Moreover, I have developed an online cultural resource on cancer awareness (encompassing multiple forms of cancer) for the African-American Lectionary (http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/calendar.asp), a resource tool for pastors, worship leaders, and teachers.
Despite its challenges, my journey through breast cancer has been a time of profound growth and deepened understanding. I have gained many lessons that will sustain me for a lifetime. I am grateful for what this experience has taught me and for every person who has supported me throughout my journey toward healing. In particular, I want to express my appreciation to the doctors, nurses, and health care professionals who participated in my care; my students, colleagues, and administrators at Yale Divinity School; my First Institutional Baptist Church family and pastor, Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr.; my friends and neighbors; and my sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. I also want to thank my family and close friends especially, Louis, Vera, and Angela Smith; Valencia, Maceo Sr., Maceo Jr., Michael, and Matthew Ward; April, Alijah, and Isaiah Black; Cathy Glenn, Moses N. Moore Jr., Bonita Grubbs, and Sarah Alexander. I could not have done it without you!