Nothing seemed different or out of the ordinary for Kerry Smart as she went into her annual doctor’s appointment in the beginning of April. She didn’t know just how drastically her life was about to change.
Smart, assistant director of athletic fundraising and cross-country coach at Thomas College, a mother of two children and wife of a funeral home director, knew she was due for her annual mammogram, but at this particular appointment her doctor wanted her to have a mammogram and an ultrasound.
In that ultrasound they found a tumor in her right breast.
“[The doctors] knew at that point, from the way it looked, that they wanted to biopsy it,” Smart said. “On April 17, we went for a biopsy, and the radiologist said that it didn’t look good.”
The next day, April 18, Smart’s nurse called her and told her that she had infiltrating ductal carcinoma which is an invasive form of breast cancer.
The following Tuesday she had a MRI done and found another tumor in her left breast.
Her doctors then told her she had triple-negative breast cancer.
“Triple negative is not really that common. I didn’t have estrogen positive. It wasn’t hormone fed and so that kinda made it a little more serious,” Smart said. “The recurrence is a little higher with that. It was a different kind of ball game.”
Smart said it all moved very quickly and on May 20, she went into Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to have her bilateral mastectomy.
“I didn’t have any cancer in my right breast but I did not want this to come back,” she said. “I didn’t want to dance this dance again.”
Plenty of support
Smart was never short a dance partner in her battle against cancer. Her two younger sisters, her husband and incredible support group never stepped out of tempo.
“I had my mastectomy surrounded by friends and family and just the support has been overwhelming,” she said. “The physical part of it, the surgeries, that was all manageable but just the fact that people from all walks of life, all areas of my life, have just been so supportive … my sisters and husband have just been rock stars. We laugh, we cry, we just have fun.”
Smart’s husband, T.J., director of Veilleux Funeral Home, agreed that they had a lot of support.
“The support was incredible, everyone was just so amazing, you really realize how lucky you are,” T.J. said.
Even the community at Thomas college lent a helping hand to the Smart family.
“When I was first diagnosed, the people at Thomas College were just incredible,” Kerry said. “The facilities guys when I got diagnosed and went out on my mastectomy, all wore pink shirts and they wore them every Friday for the entire summer in support of me.”
It was not just the people in Smart’s department that supported her.
“For the month of October for breast cancer awareness month the dining hall folks dyed their uniforms and every Wednesday they wear pink uniforms in the dining hall,” she said. The president [of Thomas College] reached out to me on numerous occasions just to see how I was doing … and almost every athletic team did some sort of breast cancer outreach and honored me throughout their seasons.”
Thomas College even initiated a new policy called the Compassionate Leave Policy which allows faculty and staff to give their vacation time to another employee who is going through something catastrophic. Smart said that she took roughly 40 days off from May-November and all of those days off, someone on campus donated their vacation time to her, so she never lost any pay.
Not only did she not lose any time off from work, she also did not cook a meal for 12 weeks.
“All of May, June and July. Every day people brought meals to my house, and then when I started a different chemo every other week for four days I did not cook,” Smart said.
Smart emphasized over and over again how incredible her support system has been. She stopped writing thank-you notes because it got to the point where she just could not keep up.
She said that she was very lucky, overall. She did not get sick and was not afraid for surgery, but she did have one weakness: chemotherapy.
“Chemo was scary for me. You hear horror stories, when they prep you for it they have to tell you all the bad stuff, so going to chemo was really hard for me,” Smart said.
On her first day of chemo she walked out to her car and found a sign her son made for her that said “No one Fights Alone.”
On the drive from her house to the interstate there were signs and balloons placed about 10-20 feet apart that had words of encouragement for her.
She needed this encouragement, especially when she started losing her hair, which she said was the most difficult part of chemo. The doctors told her that most patients lose their hair on day 14, and on cue, day 14 came and she started to lose her hair.
“Being bald is not the hardest thing. It is the physical aspect of losing your hair, it really stinks,” she said. “It was not the vanity thing for me because I don’t mind being bald. It is just one of those cancer reminders that the stuff going in your body is really crummy.”
Smart actually said she loves being bald.
“There are so many positives from this breast cancer thing. I have not had to wax my eyebrows or my lip or shave my legs. It does not get much better than that for a whole summer,” she said.
She did admit to having some “off days” where she felt blue but overall she was able to remain positive and even told herself and her doctors that she was going to be the best breast cancer patient there ever was.
“[Having breast cancer] has been a gift to be honest with you,” Smart said. “It brought out a side of people, that human spirit that you don’t see in everyday life, or you don’t take the time to see.”
Smart does not give herself any credit for fighting this battle, and said that her husband was one of the strongest people at her side during this difficult time.
“He has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Out there in the world everyone sees me happy, confident, and good natured and he has had to live the other part of it and he has been a rock,” Smart said.
T.J. agreed that was not an easy road.
“Kerry is a very strong woman. On the outside she determined, strong-willed and perseveres over all of the obstacles in her way,” T.J. said. “But there are those rare moments that you could see how much she was actually fighting and that was hard to watch.”
Since T.J. is a funeral home director, the presence of death has been close to the family for quite some time. He said this presence did not ease his pain.
“It was devastating, when I found out that Kerry was diagnosed with breast cancer, as a funeral home director, all of the breast cancer victims I know ended up at the funeral home,” T.J. said. “It was just emotionally difficult to know Kerry had breast cancer.”
A new appreciation
Through this difficult time, the Smart family became even closer and were able to slow down and appreciate the little things in life.
“We were already a really close family but I felt like I took the time to enjoy. I found that I lived a lot more in the moment that I was in,” Kerry said. “It slowed me down a little bit to enjoy things, to enjoy my children. I really made a conscious effort to think that what we were doing in that moment was the most important thing.”
“It really makes you appreciate, not just what you accomplished, like Kerry said, but you have a lot more value for life and learn to appreciate everything,” T.J. said. “We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, so we have to make the most of today.”
“We should all do that but life just gets crazy,” Kerry said.
Six years ago the Smarts’ daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and because she was not able to focus on her daughter as much, because of her breast cancer, a lot of the responsibility was put on her husband.
“[My husband] and I had shared a lot of responsibly, and I also did a lot being the mother and the caretaker and it was something that I did not have a lot of time to focus on this summer, and it just became one of those things that my husband had to take care of,” Kerry said.
“It really wasn’t any more responsibility. I saw what Kerry was going through and it was the least I could do,” T.J. said.
The Smart family remains positive, they know they have a long road ahead of them, but for now Kerry is proud to say she is a breast cancer survivor. She had her last chemo treatment Nov. 14 and does not plan on putting on those dancing shoes again and neither does Kerry’s husband.
“I want to live a long and happy life with Kerry, cancer free,” T.J. said.
“I plan on being here for awhile, I have too many things left to do,” Kerry said.
Kerry Smart has been blogging since May about her journey with breast cancer. You can read her story at caringbridge.org/visit/kerrysmart.