Photo by Arlene Hittle.
Originally Published: October 9, 2016 10:23 a.m.
Yavapai County resident Julie Smithers is a self-described health freak.
Her parents raised her to eat healthfully. At various times in her life, she’s been a vegetarian and an organic farmer. And for the last three and a half years, she’s owned and operated Curves in Prescott, encouraging women to move more.
“And I still got cancer,” she said.
Smithers was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma on Valentine’s Day 2016.
That began her battle with breast cancer – a time of uncertainty, stress and educating herself about treatment options.
“As with most things I do, I immersed myself in whatever information I could find to educate myself,” she said.
She researched online, read “Dr. Susan Love’s Book of Breast Cancer (given to her by a Curves client who’d gone through breast cancer the year before) and listened to friends’ and neighbors’ suggestions – even those who had never had cancer or personally knew someone using their suggested treatments.
“I was thankful for the information and knew that it was because they cared,” she said.
She researched going to Phoenix for treatment or visiting Mexico for experimental treatment, looked into coffee enemas and raw juice drinks, and studied protocols that included healing cancer with essential oils. She said she believes in using essential oils for minor ailments.
Ultimately, Smithers decided to stay in the Quad Cities for her treatment.
“Everybody that you need is right here,” she said, adding that her surgeon, oncologist and technicians were wonderful.
Her diagnosing physician, Dr. Douglas Campbell, referred her to surgeon Dr. Thomas Rusing.
“He was honest, up-front, thorough in his explanations and very compassionate,” Smithers said of Rusing.
Because she wanted to save her right breast, they opted to start with chemo. The goal was to shrink the tumor enough for a lumpectomy. When four sessions of chemo didn’t reduce its size enough to make a lumpectomy work, Smithers decided on a mastectomy instead. At first, she wanted to remove just the one breast – but she opted for a double mastectomy instead.
“My reason was simply that I wanted to be ‘even.’ To be able to throw on a shirt and go without having to put on a prosthetic breast,” she said. “And I chose not to have reconstructive surgery because I just wanted to be done with the whole process and get on with my life.”
She had the mastectomies on July 5 and returned to work 10 days later.
“I’m back to normal,” Smithers said. She added she’s still a bit low on energy, but that will always be an issue.
She’ll be on hormone therapy for five years to suppress the growth of estrogen, which feeds cancer. And she tries eat well, avoiding most sugar, which also is said to feed cancer.
Through everything, Smithers has remained open about her journey. She didn’t wear a wig – nor did she want to: “It’s just not me.”
“We should not be afraid to talk about cancer,” she said. “The more we know, the more control we have over what is happening to us.”
She recommends patients listen to advice, research what they can and make up their own mind about how to deal with the cancer.
“There is no right and wrong treatment, just what it right for you,” she said.
When her Curves clients learned what she was going through, she discovered many of them also were breast cancer survivors.
“They helped me by being here and taking my mind off myself,” she said.
In addition to remaining social during treatment, Smithers also clung to her sense of humor.
“There was humor to be found at every turn,” she said.
Among the funny thoughts: not having breasts should improve her golf game; she can save money on bras; jogging and jumping jacks are more comfortable; no more dropping food on her built-in shelf …
“It has also helped me to be less of a workaholic and enjoy the idea of taking a vacation. When I feel myself reverting back to being an intense control freak, I think about my cancer and can let go,” she said. “I don’t take myself, or anyone else, for that matter, too seriously anymore.”