Connie Smith's journey of a lifetime
When Connie Smith's routine mammogram detected something abnormal in July 2014, she remembers thinking, "Oh, this is nothing – it won't be serious." But it was.
An ultrasound and biopsy followed, and her doctor called on July 22 to break the news: Connie had breast cancer.
It can be a frightening diagnosis, but Connie wasn't afraid. She had received excellent care from Providence doctors in the past and had complete faith she would again. When she learned that her medical oncologist also was involved in breast cancer research, her confidence grew even stronger. "From the very start, I felt I was in really good hands," says Connie, "and every single step along the way confirmed that."
What did concern her, however, was how her treatment might affect some very big plans she had for the fall. Connie had been the original executive director and producer of the Oregon Adventist Men's Chorus. Now retired, she remains heavily involved as a volunteer administrator and artistic director. For many months, she helped plan a tour of Romania, where the chorus would sing with men from four other countries. She made plans to stay on after the tour and meet up with a friend for the first real vacation of her life – what she called her European "vacation of a lifetime."
The previous year was a stressful time for Connie, one that culminated in selling her house, packing all her belongings and moving to smaller quarters with her daughter. "I hadn't even unpacked yet," she says. "Everything was still in boxes when I got the cancer diagnosis." Now more than ever, she needed this trip to look forward to.
Connie mentioned her hopes for the trip when she met with surgeon Karen Ulloth, M.D., to talk about her treatment options. Although her cancer was small, her case was complex. As a child, she was treated with radiation twice for other medical conditions. Because of that, she might not be able to tolerate additional radiation now. That also ruled out the less-invasive option of a lumpectomy, which required radiation follow up. A mastectomy would mean a more involved surgery and a longer recovery, but wouldn't require radiation.
Connie decided to schedule a mastectomy as soon as possible – she would need every day possible to recover in time for her trip.
A few days before her scheduled surgery, Connie got an excited call from her surgeon. Dr. Ulloth had met with Connie's entire team in a breast cancer conference, where they discussed her case. Her medical oncologist, Alison Conlin, M.D., was there, as well as radiation oncologist Jeannie Louie, M.D. "Everybody is aware of your hopes for this trip," Dr. Ulloth told her, "and we want to make this possible for you."
Dr. Louie felt there was a good chance the type of radiation Connie received as a child wouldn't rule out radiation now, but she needed to meet with Connie to be sure.
Lumpectomy was back on the table as a possibility. The hitch: To finish the four weeks of radiation before her trip, Connie would need to make a decision and complete all of her tests – and the surgery – in the next three days.
Connie said yes, and her team sprang into action. Within an hour, she got a call that her MRI was scheduled for that evening. Her pathologist already had "worked miracles" to turn around a lymph node biopsy in 24 hours. The next morning, she met with Dr. Louie and cleared the last hurdle: Radiation was approved. She had the lumpectomy the following day.
On Sept. 19, less than two months after her diagnosis, Connie finished her final radiation treatment, packed her last bag and boarded a plane for Romania. The boxes still piled up back home would have to wait a while longer. She has places to be and things to do.
"The thing that still amazes me is the way that my entire team worked together to help make this happen," she says. "I felt like they were personally interested in what happened to me, not just physically, but my whole self. I don't think that happens everywhere."
In another place and time, she believes, someone in her shoes might have been given a choice: What's more important, your life or your trip? "They didn't make it an 'either/or,'" says Connie. With Providence, "it was an 'and.'"