July Survivor of the Month: Bernita Smith

July Survivor of the Month: Bernita Smith

In boxing it is said that the greatest matches produce the sport's most enduring champions.  Life is like this too sometimes.  In the fall of 2007, July's Survivor of the Month, Bernita Smith, was preparing for her for the fight of her life.  Through this battle, she would learn about persistence and grit, determination and bravery.

She would learn that sometimes the most courageous thing that a person can do is to simply get out of bed and refuse to give up.  Like a seasoned prize-fighter, Bernita would emerge from this bout in victory, and in doing so become an inspiration to countless others.  Her fight began seven years ago on Labor Day, and her opponent was breast cancer.

Before her diagnosis, Bernita led a normal, busy life.  She owned her own company that provided voter demographics and analysis to non-profit organizations and government entities.  "My life before breast cancer was very full. I worked hard and played hard.  I most enjoyed traveling to see my friends and experiencing new adventures and food."

In the fall of 2007 Bernita, only 37 years old at the time, discovered a lump in her left breast.  The journey that began that day would take Bernita down a road full of different challenges, ranging from the inconvenient to the life-altering.  It would lead her to places that were full of anxiety and pain, frustration and despair.  Bernita would soon learn that few things are easy for a cancer patient.  Simple things like organizing appointments and scheduling tests would become exhausting. Through frustrating efforts with her insurance, Bernita was eventually able to coordinate to have the tests that she needed and finally had the appointment that would let he know what was ahead for her.  "The breast surgeon did a biopsy and to his surprise I had cancer. This was a shocking blow because I was packed and ready to relocate out of state to work on a national political campaign. My entire world came crashing to a halt.

Simply hearing a recount of the physical challenges that Bernita was forced to endure is overwhelming.  She lived in a world full of frustrations and setbacks, painful treatments and in some cases, lasting side-effects.  Nonetheless, she would stand her ground against this terrible disease with courage that simply could not be broken, not even by surgery, four rounds of chemotherapy, or 38 separate radiation treatments.

The story of a survivor in many ways is the story of how the human spirit must respond to challenges that change and evolve.  Sometimes the scars that we cannot see are the ones that take the longest to heal.  With the cancer in remission and the many treatments behind her, Bernita was still left to fight the emotional toll that comes with such a battle.  "After all the treatment was completed I underwent severe depression – depression from having a weakened immune system, the neuropathy pain, physical limitations, early/forced menopause, and the fear of having a reoccurrence. I was an 'angry survivor'.  An 'angry survivor' who kept all the fears and anxiety within myself."

But like all great champions, Bernita would refuse to surrender, no matter what darkness was brought before her.   There is simply something hidden deep in the heart of a fighter that refuses to give in, despite whatever challenges arise.  Bernita would answer the bell and defeat her enemy with a sense of dignity and unrelenting determination that serves as a shining example of courage.   "I was able to get through the depression by having two great friends push through my walls and provide a safe outlet for me to express my fears and anxiety. They encouraged me to seek help from a therapist and to reach out to other breast cancer survivors. Their advice and love saved my life and helped me to look beyond the existing pain."

Bernita has also found comfort in a sorority of survivors that she has met through Susan G. Komen.  "Komen's Survivorship support has had the most impact on my life. My heart lifts every time I participate in the Coastal Komen walk. My first walk was in 2011. I was sick and weak the night before but I made a promise to myself that I would attend. When I arrived downtown the next morning, all my aches and pains disappeared as so many joyous, loving, and thankful women surrounded me. It was an amazing experience. This was true sisterhood."

Bernita's story is one of triumph not because the fight was easy, but because she refused to give in.  She passes along that spirit of grit in the advice that she leaves for others facing breast cancer.  "Breast cancer will change your life forever. It is a second full-time job, it is a struggle, it is your hardest fight, but you can't let it break you. You have to fight. You have to fight because you were a fighter before breast cancer. You have to learn new ways to survive, revive, and thrive. There is no giving up."