10/08/17 — Cancer edition 2017: Becoming the patient

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Cancer edition 2017: Becoming the patient

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 8, 2017 4:03 PM

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Phyllis Smith leans out of the window in front of her desk at Wayne Radiation Oncology on Thursday, Sept.14. After 13 years of working as a receptionist and providing support to patients with cancer she became a patient.

For 13 years, Phyllis Smith has been one of the warm, smiling faces greeting patients at Wayne Radiation Oncology.

Despite witnessing all the cancers and conditions that brought people through those doors, nothing prepared her to be on the receiving end of the services.

"You're used to everybody else walking in and you're trying to be nice and kind of sensitive and then all of a sudden it's me," she said.

She was so unsuspecting that when it came time for her regular mammogram in February of this year, she had the appointment during her lunch hour and thought nothing more about it.

Mid-afternoon, though, she received a call requesting she return for a 3-D mammogram and ultrasound.

"A lot of people have that to happen," she said. "I wasn't real concerned about it.

"I told my husband about it. He asked if I wanted him to come with me. 'If you want to, you can,' I said."

The couple went to the next visit together.

Within minutes of the test, she said the doctor asked to speak with her.

"I see the image, and I see a spot, and I'm familiar with those spots," she said of what awaited her. "I'm just kind of thinking, 'No, it can't be.'

"He did kind of emphasize the fact that it was very small, that it was nothing that I had done to cause it. It had probably been there for a couple years but was so very small that it hadn't been detected."

After the follow-up ultrasound and breast biopsy, that report was delivered through her boss, Dr. Kevin Kerlin.

"He threw it down on my desk. I saw 'malignant,'" Smith said. "I looked back at him, 'OK, I see it, but what does it mean?'

"He told me that I had joined the ranks of people in the world, that I was a statistic now -- I had cancer. He said, 'If I can't take care of this, I need to quit my job.'"

That gave her hope, she says now.

Her long-time employer talked to her like a doctor, she said, but also from a compassionate standpoint, allowing her to take it all in and process the information.

She wound up having surgery, removing four lymph nodes, which came back negative for cancer.

Smith said she was blessed to have confidence in the physicians who cared for her, and the plan of treatment from Dr. I-Wen Chang at Southeastern Medical Oncology Center -- radiation and hormone therapy.

It was a bit ironic being a patient in the office where she worked for all these years and being cared for by her co-workers.

"The girls at the office, they were outstanding, they were so caring," she said. "One was very eager to tell me, 'I'm not going to treat you any different' but we're family.

"Dr. Kerlin, the worst part for me was him being my employer but also my doctor, but he was a professional, he was a friend, he was a doctor. I found out what everybody raves about -- about how educated he was and thorough and every question you thought or didn't think, he had an answer for."

The process was not without its twists and turns, though.

Shortly after being diagnosed in early February, she had an accident at home resulting in third-degree burns to her left hand.

"My husband had sent me flowers at the office and cooked supper for Valentine's Day -- he was outside cooking pork chops, asparagus wrapped in bacon, everything was so good," she recalls. "All I needed to do was fry the bacon, there was extra bacon left. The pot was on the stove, I thought it was cooled, and poured (bacon grease) in a jar but it got all over my hand."

Fortunately, her husband, Mike Smith, was a retired EMT and knew how to treat it in the interim.

Actually, the whole family has medical ties.

Daughter, Miranda, works in the registration area of the emergency department at Wayne Memorial Hospital. Son, Hunter, a recent graduate of Liberty University now pursuing his master's in homeland security, is also a paramedic.

"When you're in the medical field you're not supposed to think about emotions," Smith said. "It's all about how to fix it.

"You have to be able to handle it, and that's how my whole family is."

But even the most pragmatic exterior can be weakened when the news hits close to home.

And the Smiths rallied around Phyllis during her cancer journey, as did so many others, she said.

"I'm not used to people 'oohing' and 'aahing' over me," she said. "I have been involved with Relay for Life for 13 years, always helping other people. I would never have thought it would be me and that I would have a bag out there that was lit during luminary ceremony."

The encouragement and support given was very appreciated.

First and foremost, having a solid faith was beneficial.

"No. 1, God," she said. "I don't see how anybody can go through any kind of experience, cancer, without Him.

"Reading my devotions, which is my favorite devotion, Jesus Calling, the Tuesday morning ladies prayer meeting at church (First PH), my mom is involved in that. They were all the time praying and sending me cards."

Since completing radiation the end of June, she continues to be on hormone therapy and says she hasn't had any major side effects.

"My knees and joints are stiff, and I think I'm a bit more sentimental," she said.

Another by-product, perhaps, is the reserve tank of compassion she has discovered within herself.

It is at the ready whenever a patient comes through her office doors, being offered freely as so many others did for her.