That’s how long it took Traci Smith to feel whole again after her April 2013 breast cancer diagnosis – to fully cement herself as a survivor.
“After I processed that I had cancer, I got into a place where I said I had to do whatever it takes to beat this disease. That was the end result,” Traci said. “I had to do whatever it takes. So everything in-between spoke to how I had to beat this disease.
“Whatever it took — chemo, radiation, surgeries — I had to do whatever it took to make sure I reached my end result, which was being a survivor.”
A Long Journey
In the four years between diagnosis and survivorship, Traci underwent 36 rounds of chemotherapy, had lymph nodes removed, received radiation treatments and had a double mastectomy.
“So I’m thinking that I’m going to have chemo, I’m gonna have my breasts taken off, bam, bam, boom, I’m getting new breasts and I’m gonna be okay,” Traci said. “And so when I was told that I have to have my breasts taken off, and then have radiation, and then wait until that heals -- and that was a nine or 10-month process -- that was a lot for me to digest.”
During those months of healing, Traci prepared for her breast reconstruction with Liza C. Wu, MD, and Paris D. Butler, MD, MPH, surgeons who fully believe that restoration of the breast following mastectomy is an integral part of the holistic treatment of breast cancer.
“Oh they took care of me. They treated me with white gloves,” Traci said of the care team that helped her close the loop on breast cancer and made her feel whole again. “They treated me with the upmost respect and whatever I asked, they explained it thoroughly.”
Despite the excellent care, Traci’s reconstruction was difficult. Traci opted for free flap reconstructive surgery, which involved removing tissue from her back to place on her chest. The benefits of the procedure include a more natural shape, texture and appearance of the reconstructed breast.
“I think I had five to six surgeries all together to count,” Traci said, recounting her two mastectomies, reconstruction, extensions and revisions. “And so it wasn’t an easy process for me at all. It wasn’t. Am I happy now? I’m very happy. But it wasn’t an easy process.”
Her difficulties were worth it, though, as Traci is now happy with her reflection.
“For a while, believe it or not, I could not look in a mirror,” Traci said. “When I became bald, I couldn’t look in the mirror. I couldn’t even show my daughter how I looked for at least two or three months.
“When I had surgery, I couldn’t look in the mirror. When I wore the prosthetic … I was constantly conscious of how I looked. And must of asked my friends a thousand times, ‘Am I lopsided? Am I okay? Can you see it?’ And so I’m just glad to be in the space that I am. … I’m a happy camper.”
Surviving and Thriving after Cancer
Traci is adamant that the time between breast cancer diagnosis and reconstruction was a gift.
“What came out of me is that I enjoy my life to the fullest. I love my life now,” Traci said. “Not that I didn’t before, but I appreciate it and understand it much better after this long journey.”
She’s now paying it forward with Traci’s B.I.O (Beautiful Inside and Out), a nonprofit organization that helps breast cancer patients “feel somewhat whole while they’re going through this abnormal process,” Traci said.
The organization provides custom wigs and helps women with their eyebrows and eyelashes while they are experiencing hair loss from chemotherapy. In addition to cosmetic aid, Traci’s B.I.O offers education and emotional support at all stages of the cancer journey.
“I wanted to create a sisterhood of ladies that are going through cancer to help us have open and honest conversation that sometimes you can’t have with your doctor, your mother, your father, your significant other, your husband, your wife,” she said. “I wanted to have a dialogue.”
Dozens of women have shared their stories of diagnosis, treatment and recovery via Traci’s B.I.O., which Traci turned into three books. The latest, “It Takes a Village,” features the stories of 10 women. Dr. Butler, who Traci has kept in touch with since her surgeries, wrote the forward.
“Our goal is to make sure not only are we surviving, but we are thriving in the process,” Traci said.