Part 1 of 2
Five years ago, Penelope “Penny” Smith was like many San Fernando Valley “supermoms.”
Her life with her husband Steven and her 6-year-old daughter was at the center of her routine. She kept their lives in good order — she volunteered and was very involved at her daughter’s school, kept a very tidy home in Granada Hills near the Knollwood Country Club golf course. She helped out at her husband’s mortgage company not far from their home and met her friends for lunch to catch up.
It was a good life that Penny and her husband worked hard for. They both didn’t come from money and as a biracial couple — he’s African American and she’s Latina — there were the expected challenges but nothing they couldn’t both handle.They were focused on the future and giving their daughter the best opportunities — looking toward setting no limits for her as they knew she, too, would have to learn to navigate her own unique multicultural world.
But even the best laid plans can take a turn.
“I had just gone to the gym and took a shower and felt a little tightness and felt something soft on the side of my left breast. I wasn’t worried at all,” Penny said. “It just felt like a little jelly bean.”
Others told her it was nothing to worry about, too, because it didn’t feel like a lump.
“But a couple of weeks went by and it started gnawing at me, so I called the doctor and they sent me straight to have a mammogram,” Penny said. “Immediately afterward they asked me if I could stay for a biopsy and after that biopsy, I sat in my car crying.”
One Day to the Next — Life Can Change
While she struggles to remember dates and describes herself as having “chemo fog,” the date January 12, 2016 Penny will never forget. It’s carved deeply into her memory.
“I got a call from my OB-GYN right before my daughter’s ballet class. The doctor said is was ductal carcinoma (the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast). I was borderline stage 3 and it had spread. I would have to start chemo immediately.
“When you get the news… it’s what do you do?”
She had gone to the Women’s Breast Link in Tarzana and went to UCLA for a second opinion, and found that both doctors would both be administering the same protocol, so she opted to stay in the Valley.
The news was hard to grasp. After all, she didn’t feel pain, she exercised and was good about taking care of herself. In fact she worked out day and night and was a proud, well disciplined veteran who served during Desert Storm.
“I was 45 years old and have been a healthy person my whole life. When you get this news…it’s what do you do?”
But, she didn’t have much time to process the news. They attached a chemo port to a vein in her chest the very next week for what would be a year of chemotherapy. Her treatment included drugs that were clinical trials and a very aggressive treatment with radiation.
She had a “triple positive” diagnosis that included “HER2 positive,” which tends to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers, but also responds well to targeted treatment.
“They did a very aggressive chemo cocktail for me to try to shrink the tumor and stop the spread but the tumor didn’t shrink, so they scheduled the surgery — right away,” Penny said. “They did a partial mastectomy and at the time did not clear all the margins, and they did more chemotherapy and then I started radiation.”
The Impact During and Following Treatment
Penny has reached her five-year survival mark, but is still suffering the after effects of treatment. During treatment on many days she couldn’t get out of bed and cried in pain.
She candidly shared the damage that the treatment has caused. It has impacted her intimate relationship with her husband. She has suffered excruciating bone pain, so much so that doctors considered the possibility of the cancer going into her bones. She has damage to her muscles.
“With the chemotherapy you lose a lot of muscle mass and maybe it’s because of the type of chemo. They gave me so much chemo that in the middle of it — I almost died,” she said.
“They had to quickly disconnect me and later reduced my dosages. I’ve had to have a surgery just so that I don’t pee on myself — it’s taken its toll, but I’m a strong woman.”
Life now, she says frankly, isn’t “normal.” But she keeps going.
She needs a second surgery to help her control her bladder and bowels and has to sometimes wear adult diapers. She wakes up early just to draw in her eyebrows in “so that I don’t look sickly. Five years later, I still don’t have eyebrows and my hair has grown back splotchy. I used to have gorgeous hair. It does take its toll on your womanhood.”
She doesn’t wear a wig because she says that her scalp has become so sensitive that it causes pain.
Penny stopped taking the chemo in 2017… and she has been prescribed tamoxifen to take daily for 10 years thereafter. The impact of the radiation has made it impossible for her to be out in the sun or go into a jacuzzi or sauna.
“I have lymphedema for the rest of my life,” she said. “I have to pump myself every night because my breast fills up. Losing a breast; for a woman, it messes with your head.”
They’ve even eliminated the microwave from their home.
“It’s a hard way to live,” she said, “and a lot of people have asked me, ‘Is it worth it if you don’t have the stamina to do the things that make you feel alive?’”
Penny believes the cancer community needs to be more forthcoming about what may be in store long-term when you start putting chemo and other powerful drugs into your body. She would like the cancer profession to consider that not everyone is the same.
“While everyone is different, treatment shouldn’t be cookie cutter,” Penny said.
“These side effects are pretty intense. You have moments where you have problems with what is left or right or how to start a car. You are just not yourself, have brain fog, and you are just out of the norm. I wasn’t able to drive — my daughter just turned 12, when I was diagnosed she was 6. My daughter cries because it traumatizes her and every time I have to use the bathroom, she panics. She has seen me have accidents.”
Her voice breaks when she recalls her daughter checking on her throughout the night when she was only 6. “ She’d ask me – ‘Mom, will you be here in the morning?’”
There are definitely side effects: you can’t play with your kids, there is extreme fatigue, and it just fogs your clarity. She is motivated by setting goals for herself and keeping focused on her family — so it is “worth it.”
Handling the Disease On Her Own Terms
Beyond the physical challenges that persist, the toll it takes on family weighs on Penny. She decided to take a little break from the tamoxifen and now has better clarity.
“I have taken a little break from the tamoxifen and I’ve been doing well and I’ve noticed a tremendous difference with my clarity. With the chemotherapy you lose a lot of muscle mass and maybe it’s because of the type of chemo,” Penny said.
“They gave me so much chemo that in the middle of it I almost died. They had to quickly disconnect me and later reduced my dosages. They did a very strong cocktail for me.”
Cancer is a very humbling disease, she said. “I started my business at the end of 2019, and started feeling my strength coming back. I thought, ‘I have my daughter and need to go forward.’ I don’t know if I have 15 years to live or 10 — but whatever the number is, you have to have a goal.
“I want people to speak up and to be more honest about cancer — sharing their stories about their lives during and after cancer treatment, how it affects your intimate relationships and your family and the honest conversations that should be discussed during treatment. There is so much more to be talked about.”
In next week’s issue Penny shares the business she started to help other cancer patients that also serves to fundraise for the American Cancer Society. She also talks about her team “Penny For A Walk” that will participate at The Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk of Los Angeles on Oct. 16 at Grand Park, located at 200 N. Spring St. in downtown LA. Registration is at 7 a.m., and the walk will start at 8:30 a.m. People can join Penny’s team or sign up for the walk at MakingStridesWalk.org/LosAngeles. The walk is free, but donations are requested to help fund free patient services and cancer research. It’s a family event and all are welcome. Many attend wearing the color pink.