In November 2014, Kelsey Smith was diagnosed with stage two Invasive Ductal Carcinoma at 29 years old while living in Phoenix, Arizona. Her cancer is ER/PR+, HER2/NEU-, and not genetically predisposed. In December 2014, Kelsey elected to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and began an aggressive treatment of Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol with breast reconstruction. She has been NED since January 2015. Kelsey currently resides in Temperance, Michigan where she runs a podcast called "The CanSurvivor Podcast with Kelsey Smith." Kelsey also helps individuals get into alignment with their goals as a business development coach. In her spare time, she loves to cuddle with her cat on her adjustable bed, dance under the stars, and write. In her words, “Now, let’s get on with the show!”
One of the first pieces of advice I was given by my breast surgeon was that women typically walk into their first appointments thinking they will opt for one treatment option, but then after they have all of the information, they go another route.
This wasn’t me. At 29, I was far too young to be getting breast cancer (or so I thought). My nipples had been producing thick, white milky discharge for over 10 years at this point, and I just wanted to get my breasts the fuck off me after I decided a Stage 2 diagnosis was the ultimate betrayal. While I was at it, I thought, “Why don’t I opt for the breast size I always wanted?” Even though I had just come to terms with having small breasts, I longed to be busty. Let’s just say I had to go an alternative route to get there!
I once read in a tabloid magazine that Selma Hayek prayed for big breasts before she became famous. Since celebrities are great role models and tabloids are truthful, I figured, “If it worked for her, why couldn’t it work for me?” Boy, did the powers that be come through on that one! I’ll pray for world hunger next time (Hindsight, y’all). I’ll just do this thing called “reconstruction,” or whatever. It’ll all be a breeze, and I’ll have these amazing, new breasts with their own birthday! I imagined once this nightmare was over, I’d be serenading my breasts.
(So many compound words in the cancer space, amirite? Boobiversary, Chemobrain, Chemopause, CanSurvivor… But, I digress.)
During the double mastectomy, my breasts were pumped with 200cc of saline each, so I didn’t wake up completely flat. I did wake up to, however, a surgical assistant named Leland who was checking my chart with a motorcycle helmet under his arm. Certainly that must have been a dream! Who shows up as a surgical assistant dressed in full motorcycle garb while checking in on a patient? Especially a young one named LELAND? Leland is not the name of a young man. I refused to believe it.
From there, I basically elected to torture myself and have fluid injected into my breasts via ports every week, stretching my skin and muscles to their limits. It was like Build-a-Bear, but for boobs. Build-a-Boob! You can watch one of my appointments on YouTube if you so wish.
The expanders felt like they stretched up to my chin and down to the bottom of my rib cage, all while making it impossible to shave my armpits (no one ever told me how deep my armpits would be post-surgery!). I bumped into a LOT of walls and tight spaces during this time also because I had to relearn my body’s proximity to everything. When Kim Kardashian said she bumped into things with her butt on Celebrity Family Feud recently, I felt that in my soul.
One fun aspect of having these expanders in my chest was that I was magnetic. Literally. Days spent in my cubicle, I’d often send ridiculous pictures to friends just like this.
Upon completion in of chemotherapy in June 2015, I was hoping to have the exchange surgery right away. No such luck. My plastic surgeon Dr. Holcombe wanted to give the expanders time to do their job. The exchange surgery was initially scheduled for Oct. 8, 2015.
On Sept. 16, 2015 my father passed away. While we hadn’t spoken since Christmas 2003, it sparked something in me emotionally, and I spent time writing and crying over him on a mountain while hikers were probably thinking I was writing a good-bye letter or a will.
Dad loved to fuck with people like that! That was where I learned that I had to laugh through the pain, because the pain is inevitable.
On October 5, there were these red bumps on my left side that kept getting worse. “What the hell is going on?” I wondered as I Googled the symptoms. They were itchy, only on my left side, and almost looked like pimples. The first skin condition that appeared was shingles. Mother fucking shingles. You’ve got to be kidding me! Patients can’t be operated on with shingles, so the surgery was pushed back another month.
The day had finally arrived: Nov. 5, 2015. That morning, I jumped up, put on my happy face, and took one last picture with these wretched things.
During surgery prep, it felt like there were 20 doctors in the room. Then, a man approaches me with a marker and begins to do his thing. “Wait a second,” I thought to myself. “I know you!” I said out loud, pointing at him and squinting. He looked at me, rather startled. I think one of the assistants said something along the lines of, “he’s never worked with us before.”
And then it hit me. “YOU’RE LELAND! YOU’RE THE MOTORCYCLE GUY!” Everyone kind of stopped what they were doing. “How in the hell do you remember?!” he asked. “You were totally out of it. That was right after surgery!” The girls teased him up until I passed out.
I never saw him again after that day, but I’ve learned that life can be funny like that. And that I need to believe my dreams, apparently! The surgery ended up including a capsulectomy, which set the recovery time back an additional two weeks. It was hell in the moment, but now I can look back at that time with a smile!