What Cancer CAN Do

by Ashley SmockSurvivor, Stage 3: Grade C-Ovarian CancerSeptember 11, 2020View more posts from Ashley Smock

“Her palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s sweat on her brow already, not so steady
She’s nervous, but on the surface she looks calm and ready
To walk around, but she keeps on forgettin’
That her feet are down, the brain feels like it’s in a cloud
She opens her mouth, but the breath won’t come out.”

Yes, that’s a terrible attempt at rewriting an Eminem song and no, it’s not a parody. That would be exactly what my life was like just a few short days after returning home from surgery at West Penn Hospital, weak and afraid that my body would yet again give out on me as it had before.  Cancer is no joke, even though I feel as though I am preaching to choir in this magazine. The havoc it wrecks on our once healthy and seemingly invincible bodies is hard to describe. Yet, there is hope because there is so much cancer CAN do.  I am here to fill you in on the life and times of a girl named Ashley, who defied the odds, bound not to become just another statistic, to change her life to include health, diet and wellness on the journey to an overall better life!

My name is Ashley Smock and growing up I always had stomach issues. No one really knew what to think or what to suggest, and at the end of the day, I was just a good kid with bad luck with a history of feeling sick to her stomach before and after pretty much doing anything.

The mild stomach pain later in life turned into debilitating pain that left me feeling like a crumpled blanket on my bathroom floor, spending many nights sleeping on the toilet with a pillow on the sink to support my head as I was never sure if I would be running to the bathroom in the middle of night to go or throw up. It finally got to the point where I realized “This is not normal! Go talk to a doctor.”  Overall, I was always a very busy person and well-adjusted to a multi-tasking kind of life, stress never being something that really got to me. Doctors thought I had IBS, allergies, bad cramps and on and on until one day I found myself prepping for having my appendix removed as we finally thought we had figured out the answer to a week-long round of excruciating pain.

The procedure led my surgeon to discover that I had severe endometriosis and in his medically professional explanation, “looks as though a bomb has gone off in your abdomen.”  Nice, right?  That surgery led to a follow-up appointment with my OBGYN, which lead to a DN C to “scrape me out and clean me up like a pumpkin getting ready to be a jack-o-lantern” all the while always having benign pathology reports. Well that all changed the day of August 26, 2019 when I was prepping to have my second DNC.  My surgeon did a very thorough job and was very optimistic that post-op we could explore options that would keep the pain of endometriosis at bay for the foreseeable future.

Fast forward four days later to August 30, 2019.  The day I will never forget. Sitting at home, alone and relaxed on the couch, having just finished up breakfast and getting ready to go empty my lovely catheter bag from surgery when the phone rang. It was my surgeon, apologetically announcing that pathology revealed I had Stage 3: Grade C-Ovarian Cancer. No family history, benign pathology and clean blood work not even a year ago, 33 years young. The cargo doors had opened, the bomb was dropped and the landscape of my life would never be the same.

To make a long story short, my fast-track treatment plan meant going back to the OR in about two short weeks, having a total hysterectomy, followed by six heavy rounds of chemo and then beginning a long-term cycle of maintenance medication. Yeah, my life felt like an Eminem song- I had no idea what to expect, nervous and scared to death, just going through the motions to survive.

Waking up from the hysterectomy, the first thing I did was roll up my hospital gown to reveal the gnarly incision line about ten inches long to admire my Frankenstein belly full of staples. I was unsure I could stand up, let alone walk. I remember the first steps in the hospital that I took as though it were yesterday. Walking to just my door and back was so difficult that I had to lie down and rest afterwards. The walk to my door and back eventually turned into down the hall and back, to the elevator and back and finally around the floor and back.  I remember spending many days and nights, propped up against the windowsill overlooking the city, watching life whizz by while I-stuck in a hospital, barely able to eat, drained of strength and looking at a new version of me I didn’t know-stood still. Going home from surgery, I was bound and determined to get stronger, even if it meant pushing me just a little bit farther each and every day.

It was shortly after returning home in late September that I decided I would try to get the mail and then walk to the end of the street as a trial run. It was pretty damn hard! I was very unsteady, my feet felt like they were made of concrete and my brain was trapped in a total fog as I struggled to remember how to put one foot in front of the other to do something as mundane and simple as walking.  I was worn and beat having hobbled the maybe twenty yards to the end of my street, ready to lean on my walking companion to help me back into the house whoever that happened to be that day-my dad, my boyfriend or one of my friends.  Needless to say, to think that I would ever run again seemed like a fantasy in a dream world that I would never again ever visit.

Well fall turned into winter and before I knew it, I had reached my goal- I had made it Round #6, found myself bawling my eyes out ringing the bell and was putting the worst behind me.  Then the thought occurred to me- now what?

I felt as though I had walked to the edge of the abyss and looked death straight in the face, laughed and then walked away into the sunset. But now what? No one prepares you for how to feel after a mountain-top moment like that, where to go, what to do or what in the hell you’re supposed to do with your life afterwards.

I decided if I was going to make the most of my victory, it was time to seriously start taking care of myself. Now during chemo I had started doing Tip #1:  Put Quality In, Get Quality Out.  Cancer had shown me I CAN change how I fueled my recovering body. I had started eating right, filling most meals with healthy options-mostly whole grains, fruit and veggies and had almost completely cut out sugar. Diet down, two more pillars of an overall well-balanced life to go.

During chemo I had also been taking care of my mental health-visiting frequently with my therapist, seeking out a support group and realizing that it was OK to admit that I was not OK which led me to Tip #2:  Find a Support Group!  Let me preface this part of the article by saying I honestly have no idea how people get through cancer without a support group. There is such a stigma in this country with mental health and talking about your feelings.  Getting help and admitting you need an army of support is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength and courage because you  have realized somewhere deep down inside yourself that the journey you are on is bigger and stronger and wider than just you and the last thing you need to feel is isolated and alone!

I found two wonderful support systems through Hair Peace and Young Adult Survivors United in Pittsburgh, PA.  Both provided me with a sense of peace knowing that I was not alone walking the journey of hell-on-Earth by myself. Young Adult Survivors United, in particular, was finally the dysfunctional family I never knew I always needed that provided me with the safe space to talk about what life was like being a now thirty-four year old juggling trying to save money in my 401K, starting and establishing myself in my career, fixing up my house, juggling a relationship, kids and paying bills all the while trying not to let cancer win!  This group literally helped save my life-emotionally and financially.  Being part of weekly meetings and online discussions provided me with the regular boost of positivity I so desperately needed while financial stipends helped keep my head above water having just spent six months of my life on disability making a fraction of what I was used to.  Cancer showed me I CAN make new friendships, laugh until I cry and get the heavy load off my chest during a global-pandemic which was so kind in allowing me to stay in isolation because being on chemo and off work for six months certainly wasn’t enough right? Ugh-cue the sarcastic look of “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me right now, seriously?  COVID19- I just finished chemo and couldn’t wait to get back out into the world. But, now I can’t. So there! Thanks.”

Getting involved in YASU is what finally brings me to Tip #3:  Get up and Get Moving! Cancer showed me that with the support of my YASU and Hair Peace families, I CAN exercise again, even if it looks completely different than what I was used to. No more doing pull-ups on the machine, lifting weights, being around other people at the gym or working my arms on weight machines because wait-it gets better- now I had a port which limited my mobility and my immunity was shot to hell- so movement needed to be slow and steady.

I told myself that being in remission meant that I needed to do something to change the last part of my life, being physically active, which was something I struggled with even pre-cancer. I have never liked sweating and most certainly did not enjoy running. That led to my grand idea of running a 5K everyday in the month of May.  The 3.1 miles of a 5K were significant to me being a Stage 3 cancer survivor and the thought of running again was a goal I decided upon having revisited the distant memories of hobbling down the block holding onto my dad’s arm for dear life, afraid to fall flat on my face on even the slightest of inclines.

It all started the afternoon in April I finally downloaded the fitness app on my I-phone. Walking one mile, turned into two miles turned into 3.1 miles and before the end of April I could run half of a mile without stopping. It was then that I contacted Stephanie Scoletti, the president and boss-lady founder of YASU to tell her that not only did I plan on running a 5K everyday in May, but that I planned to wear the name of cancer survivor on every run to dedicate my workout to and raise funding and awareness for our little corner of the world in Western PA.

And believe it or not, the same girl who could barely stumble twenty yards down the street, who was as strong as a sheet of paper in a hurricane, built up to running the whole 3.1 miles on May 31, 2020 finishing a month-long journey of eating clean, taking care of the demons within and worked out 31 days in a row without stopping to prove that I was capable of doing what I put my mind to. Crossing the “finish line”, which happened to be an un-rolled stretch of painter’s tape, while hearing the cheers of those I love mingled with the ringing of a cowbell meant that I had arrived. I had made it. I had learned three things that cancer CAN do- it can make you stronger, it can get you connected and it can give you a better version of yourself if you let it.  My support group turned into a small group of ladies who held me accountable by also staying physically active, checking in and sending encouragement for 31 days in a row.  Names of people I had met, names of people I had only connected with via social media, names of relatives of some of my closest friends pushed me to run faster and train harder because not one cancer survivor was un-important to me. The sign I wore bearing their name and diagnosis pushed me outside to run during a typical Pittsburgh May, one weekend it was 90, one weekend it snowed and often it rained like cats and dogs.

If I can leave you with one word of advice-getting into shape and getting “healthy” after cancer is just not eating right. It’s just not finding help when you need someone to talk to. And it’s not just exercising and working out slowly-it’s all three. The road to better health is paved with food that will fuel your body and boost healing, supportive friends who understand what you’re going through, small periods of movement that leave you feeling energized and a bit of ice cream with chocolate syrup mixed in from time to time.

Overall wellness is attainable post-cancer. If I can do it, I KNOW YOU CAN TOO!

Love and positive vibes,

Ashley

This article was in our September 2020 Magazine – Click Here to view that issue!


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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2 Comments

  • Stephanie Garczynski says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and your powerful words of encouragement!

    Sending lots of peace and happiness,
    Stephanie

  • Sue says:

    Ashley, there was never a moment that you weren’t a fighter and continue today! You are one Great Success Story! You’re our Warrior, Hero and most importantly Our Survivor! Love you so much, beautiful. Mum

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