Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The “C” word – My Story (Part I)

Davida Smith, Dean, Academics, Applied Arts and Tourism at CNA’s Prince Philip Drive Campus.

Davida Smith’s story of fear, struggle and survival… in her own words

I grew up in St. Bride’s, a small town located on the Cape Shore. I am the oldest of four children and moved to St. John’s when I was 15.  

Fifteen seems to be a good number for me, as it’s also how long I’ve been at CNA – 12 of those years in Qatar, and since 2017, I’ve been located at Prince Philip Drive campus in St. John’s. Throughout my career here I have worked in various capacities, such as instructor, program developer, senior campus director, and now as a dean. My colleagues have always been special to me, and it’s perhaps only in the past two years that I realized how important that connection was.

During Spring 2021, I felt that things weren’t right. As a menopausal woman, I started to experience some spotting. I didn’t do anything about it at that time, but in July, I started to have more consistent bleeding and I knew I needed to see a doctor. My family doctor was on vacation and I wouldn’t be able to see him until the end of August. Like most, I started to Google my symptoms and several things would pop up, including the possibility of cancer. I was concerned and prayed that it wouldn’t happen to me. 

At my doctor’s appointment on August 26, he listened to my symptoms, looked at me and explained that he couldn’t say what the issue was; however, it could be a long list of things. Bottom line: I needed to get to a specialist as soon as possible for a biopsy. This happened a month later, almost to the day. I remember Dr. Kennedy saying, “If it’s nothing, you will not hear from me until six weeks; however, if anything comes back, I will call you immediately.”   

I went back to work after my appointment and prayed that I would not hear from his office.

A week later, on October 4, my cellphone rang. It was Dr. Kennedy’s office and I needed to see him the next morning at 10 a.m. I knew then that things were not good. I called my husband and when I told him, he said not to worry and that it could be several things. No matter how much he tried to reassure me, I could not help thinking about what was to come.

‘I needed to be strong’

The next morning, I went into the campus, and left at 9:45 a.m. when my husband picked me to up to go to the doctor’s office. Because it was during the height of the pandemic, I couldn’t bring him in with me – only patients were allowed.

Being alone in what was normally an office filled with patients felt very eerie. When the doctor called me in and said, “I guess you know why you’re here.” I looked at him and said, “I have cancer.” He said “Yes, and it’s aggressive.” 

I don’t remember much after that, but I did ask if my husband could come in from the car outside. My husband hugged me and said we would get through this. I remember just crying and not being able to comprehend what he was saying. The doctor gave my husband all the information and told him what would happen next. It was just a blur.

I needed to go for emergency blood work. Sitting there, waiting for my number to be called, was surreal. I know tears were falling from my eyes, but I kept thinking that I needed to be strong for my husband and I tried not to cry. When my number was called, I recognized the student who was taking my blood as one of our Medical Laboratory Technician students and she was chatting away with me. I’m not sure I was listening to her; however, I think (and hope) I answered her questions.

My husband asked if I wanted to go home. I didn’t. I remember shaking myself off, asking my husband if I looked as though I was crying and went into PPD campus at 11:45 a.m. – a mere two hours since I left for my appointment. When I walked in, I asked my coworkers, Lisa and Ranjan, if they wanted to have lunch and didn’t say a word to either of them about my morning. That’s pretty much how I went through the next few months.

Keeping the “C” word to myself

Walking into the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in November was the scariest thing for me. I didn’t want my husband to join me. I needed to do the first meeting with the Oncologist on my own. I wanted to see if I could do it alone. No one, except my husband and sister, knew that I had cancer.

The team at the clinic was amazing. My oncologist was unbelievable, and I felt so confident in her and got additional strength from her. During our first meeting, she asked why I didn’t bring my husband or anyone with me. I told her I needed to be strong enough to make my first visit alone. I didn’t want my husband to see what this was doing to me. She encouraged me to remain strong, but to remember that I would need support from those around me in the coming months.   

Several tests were arranged; however, all of this was happening at the same time as the computer hacking at Eastern Health and the pandemic. I was frustrated that my surgery was delayed, but luckily things went smoothly. Prior to the surgery, I had to go to emergency twice because my blood pressure was so high. I was reminded to relax, I was in good hands, and that everyone was working to ensure my surgery would be a success. 

I told my colleagues I was having routine surgery – still not spilling the tea on the “C”.  They were great and gave me gifts to help with recovery, such as puzzle books, magazines, warm socks, cream, chocolates, etc.

December 13 arrived and surprisingly, I felt calm. My blood pressure was normal and I was so happy to have the cancer removed, or so I hoped, from my body. My husband, who was and is my rock, was with me. When the nurses got me ready, they told him they would call him when I was out of surgery. He kissed me on the forehead and said, “You got this!” I’ll always remember tugging at his hand, wishing he could have come with me into the operating room, as he had been with me though all the tough times.

I don’t remember much that day, but I woke up thanking my doctor and not sure what other gibberish I was saying. But I remember her leaning over me saying, “You owe me a massage as the surgery was six hours instead of three!” I told her she was my hero.

No place like home

I was advised that I would be in hospital for three to five days, but being the strong person I am, I asked my doctor if I could go home. She said she felt it would be best if I stayed in hospital, but I assured her my husband would look after me and that if anything happened, I would go right back to the hospital.  Even though my husband might have felt the same as the doctor, he did not say anything and got me ready to go home after only staying one night.

Upon arriving at the house, I was so happy because my husband had a power recliner delivered for me to make things easier. Mom was also there and was delighted I was feeling good; however, she still did not know I had cancer. She thought my surgery may have been hereditary as she had a similar surgery when she was in her 40s. I left it at that.

I really thought that everything was over and that I could now move on. I felt that Christmas 2021 would be the best Christmas of my life! And it was, until 10 a.m. on December 28 when my phone rang.

I recognized my oncologist’s number. She asked how I was doing and then she said she had received the pathology report. Some of the cancer cells were found in my stomach cavity after the surgery. I was shocked. She told me I would need to start chemotherapy ASAP and that she wanted to see me immediately in the new year. I hung up the phone, looked at my husband and just sobbed.

We went to the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in early January to meet with my doctor before my first chemo session on January 13, 2022. I was told the treatment would be aggressive because my cancer cells were very aggressive. I would lose my hair after the first one. This is not something that a woman, or man wants to hear. My husband was holding my hand and said, “Remember, hair grows back really quickly.” I asked if I could continue to work. She said I could, but I may not be able to do so after the first month of chemo. 

I am not sure what or how I was feeling that day, but I remember being scared, hurt and every horror story I heard about chemo was going through my head. I just knew I had to keep going. My next biggest concern was how I was going to tell my mother.

I decided to tell my supervisor, Jason Rolls, and our President, Liz Kidd. I didn’t know how I was going to tell them without crying, but I needed to be upfront. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue to work or what the effects of chemo and radiation might be. I just knew it was important for them to know what would be happening to me over the next six to eight months. 

I booked a meeting with the subject line “PERSONAL”. When the three of us met via Teams online, I remember Liz telling me how much she liked my hair that day. With that, I started to cry. Can you imagine what she must have been thinking … she gives me a beautiful compliment and I start to cry? I laugh at it now, but meeting with both Liz and Jason was one of the best things that I did. The overwhelming support, care and kindness was amazing. Even though I could not talk much (I was crying too hard), I did hear their words of encouragement and support. I asked if they had an issue with me continuing to work, and both said I would be supported with whatever I needed to do.

I felt I could now tell my mother.

Part II can be found here

Ryanne McIsaac
Ryanne McIsaac
Born and raised in Stephenville, NL, Ryanne recently moved back to Newfoundland after spending 16 years in Calgary, Alberta. Ryanne has a Journalism Diploma from College of the North Atlantic and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Cape Breton University. She worked for many years as a reporter and freelance writer. She is happy to be back in her hometown and working for CNA.

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