Davida Smith’s story of fear, struggle and survival … in her own words
Another important thing for me was asking those whom I had told my illness about to keep it confidential. I didn’t want to be pitied, or have others act differently around me. I wanted to continue with my “normal” life. Deep down, I thought that if I kept going, I would conquer this.
So, I kept busy. I not only did one job; I did two for several months (Senior Campus Director at PPD and as Dean for Academics, Applied Arts & Tourism).
As I began to deal with my illness, I told my bestie, Trudy O’Neill. She was shocked and upset, but right away asked what she could do. Throughout the chemo, Trudy showed up weekly at my house and would leave treats at my door and would text me to say she was in the driveway. My risk of an infection or COVID-19 meant no visitors. But I would bundle up and go out on the deck. Trudy would get out of her car and we would talk and cry. We had some of the best visits! Her husband even made me sourdough bread as he knew it was my favourite.
My first chemo treatment was surreal. I had to go to the clinic for tests on the day before. It was incredible how many people were in the same boat. I kept thinking, everyone looks so sick, I don’t want to be sick. My mind raced thinking about how my body was going to react.
The new remote office
On January 13, I remember sitting in the waiting area for my name to be called. Some people bring a family member or colleague with them while getting chemo, but I didn’t want anyone. I wanted to work.
I arrived at the clinic at 7:30 a.m. with my computer, headset, and some water … ready to encounter this new experience. I took extra time that morning to do my hair because I wasn’t sure if I would have any left before my next treatment.
The first day was very upsetting for me. I saw so many sick people, both young and old, and wondered what their stories were. At 7:45 a.m., my name was called. I was told that I would be in a bed that day because it was my first chemo treatment, and they didn’t know how I would react. I asked if I could have a table. I needed to work. My nurse, Agnes, just looked at me and said, “Your nickname from today onwards will be Trooper because very few people undergoing aggressive chemo do work.”
I was at the cancer clinic a full day for each treatment (8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.). I had four different IV drugs administered each session and I was always concerned where they would put the IV needles. Why? I wanted to be able to type and use my phone. Having meetings at the chemo clinic wasn’t easy as the broadband is terrible. There were times I would have to leave a meeting for this reason.
The nurses would pretend they were knocking on my door and would say, “Mrs. Smith, can we come into your office to check your meds?” That was always the joke at the clinic. I didn’t chat much with other patients as I was keeping myself busy with work. This also made those long days go so much faster. Because of my burning desire to have a “normal” life again, balancing my appointments and work came easy. If I couldn’t get through everything I needed to do while at the clinic, I would work for a few hours each evening.
I was determined to not let chemo or cancer make me a different person. Even though I looked different, my work ethic remained the same. For the first three days after each chemo session, I was taking steroids to help reduce sickness, reduce my body’s immune response and inflammation, as well as help keep my energy level up. I also took nausea pills to help fight the sickness.
I will never forget my first chemo appointment … trying to work with IVs in my hands and using a phone and/or computer. One day, Lisa Downey, another colleague, called on Skype. The internet was terrible on the laptop, so I accepted it on my work phone, forgetting that Lisa had requested video. When she saw me hooked up to IVs, lying in a hospital bed, she said, “Oh my God, you are in hospital and should not be answering a phone!” She hung up. I called her back immediately and told her what was happening. We have a laugh about that now, but I learned one thing that day … how to answer a Skype call WITHOUT accepting the video.
About four days after my first session, I was brushing my hair and noticed huge chunks of hair on my brush. I called out to my husband and told him that I needed to get rid of my hair. I didn’t want it falling all around the house or on my clothes. I think this may have been the hardest moment for both of us.
I was crying when he shaved my head. I know he shed a tear also, but he would never let me see him cry. Even though we knew the hair would grow back, it was hurting us both so much knowing what I was feeling and how difficult this was for me.
Working probably saved my life
While it wasn’t easy looking in the mirror, I think the hardest part of the ordeal was seeing my Mom come by my house two and three times a day, knock on the office window where I worked and wave at me. It hurt that I couldn’t hug her.
I wanted to show her how strong I was when she saw me working and talking on the headset and think, “Davida is doing really good; she is working, and things are going well.”
I know it was killing her inside since I told her I had cancer and was going through chemo, but I wanted to be strong for her and everyone around me.
I often sit back and wonder how I was able to work through all of this, but for me, working saved my life. My oncologist said she never thought I would work past one month after my first treatment. For those who really know me, I don’t give up easily. Work is important to me, as is living a “normal” life as much as possible. No matter how sick I was – believe me, there were days – I figured if I could put my two feet on the floor and get to my computer, I would get through the day. There was a drive deep inside of me to get through it all; perhaps a loyalty to my colleagues and the college who supported me through this battle. Most of all, I needed a distraction from what I was going through, and work was my saving grace.
I realize that not everyone could work and go through chemo, but I will tell anyone to not be afraid to do what is best for them. We all respond to traumatic events in our lives differently. For me, I needed to keep a sense of normalcy, and this included being able to work every day.
One thing I missed was travelling. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, but I am hopeful that I will be able to soon. I remember when a faculty member contacted me in August, and I asked them what they did this summer. When she said, “I had the most fabulous trip to Ireland,” I just cried. I don’t know what came over me. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her that Ireland was a dream trip and I was so happy she was able to be there and enjoy it. It was during our conversation that I told her I had cancer and she cried with me. Ireland is still on my bucket list!
As I expected, some faculty and staff were upset they didn’t know I was ill. When they started finding out, I received such warm wishes and greetings. Some even wanted to do things like a fundraiser. My heart was overwhelmed with the kindness shown by everyone, but I am low key and not someone who wanted to make a fuss of my illness.
In July 2022, I completed chemo and radiation, and it was time to ring the Bell of Hope at the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre. This bell symbolizes the end of one journey and the beginning of another. I really didn’t want to ring the bell. I was, and still am, unsure if the chemo and radiation was a success. However, my family and medical team wanted me to do it for all the others at the clinic who were just starting their journey.
I remember my radiologist asking me what I was most proud of throughout my experience. I looked at him and said, “I am most proud of where I work and the team I work with.” From the way he looked at me I knew I needed to expand on this. I told him, “Being proud of my family and medical team is a given; however, without the support, kindness and accommodation of my employer and family at CNA, I may not have gotten through the rough days.”
I will soon begin a series of tests over the next few months to see how things are looking. Don’t be alarmed if I shed a tear when asked about my illness. I still have a tough time even believing this happened to me!
I am feeling good right now in spite of suffering from severe neuropathy in my feet and hands, which can be very painful and has limited my ability to drive. It also makes me a little unsteady on my feet or walking, but you know what? It’s still better than the “C” word.
Part I can be found here