Woman with cancer starts support group in Champaign County

Woman with cancer starts support group in Champaign County

CHAMPAIGN – Jennifer Smith did everything she was supposed to do to be healthy.

She ate right. She exercised. She didn't smoke.

And at 30, she was hardly at an age when women are most at risk for breast cancer.

But the lump she noticed on her breast three years ago while she was nursing her infant son, Corbin, wasn't what she thought it might be, a clogged milk duct.

It was cancer.

Initially, Smith, a student services adviser at Parkland College, was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer. She underwent surgery to remove the lump, then chemotherapy and radiation.

But in 2008, her cancer was back, and it advanced to stage 4 with a spread to her bones, she said.

Now 33 and a divorced mom with a 3-year-old son, Smith says she has a great network of family, friends and co-workers to help her cope with cancer.

She also has her faith and a significant other to rely on, she says, but she realized that she also needed to know more about how to live with cancer.

Smith has since established a Young Survival Coalition affiliation in Champaign County which meets monthly as a support group for younger women up to about age 45 with breast cancer and for their families.

Young Survival Coalition is an international organization that focuses on the issues unique to young women with breast cancer, such as facing breast cancer while you're juggling a career with raising young children, Smith said. Then there's the shock of dealing with your own mortality at an age when most of your peers aren't even thinking about it, she added.

The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age, but one out of eight invasive breast cancers are found in women ages 44 and younger, according to the American Cancer Society.

But younger women are often diagnosed at a later stage than their older counterparts, are underrepresented in research studies and often feel isolated and have little contact with peers who can relate to their experience, according to the Young Survivor Coalition.

Smith said she is continuing to undergo cancer treatments, and her doctors are currently keeping her condition stable.

"I'll never be cancer-free. The goal is to keep me stable as long as possible," she said.

Meanwhile, her focus is on quality of life – not quantity, which is beyond her control, she said.

"I love my life. I really do," she added. "Cancer is part of me, but it doesn't define me."

The monthly meetings of the Young Survival Coalition Champaign-Urbana take place on the last Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Jupiter's at the Crossing, 2511 Village Green Place, C.

The meetings don't center on a formal agenda, Smith said, but give the women and their families a chance to eat pizza, talk about the issues they face and socialize.

The meetings include spouses, partners and kids, because so often the support needs of family and friends of women with breast cancer are overlooked, she said.

For example, kids coming to the meetings get a chance to meet other kids whose moms get sick and lose their hair, and that helps them realize they're not alone.

The group is open to any pre-menopausal breast cancer patients/survivors.

There is no need to sign up, Smith said. Just come to a meeting.

The group will also hold a symposium called "You are Not Alone" from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at Parkland College.

It will include an empowering day of speakers, education and networking to allow young women with breast cancer a chance to meet and learn more, Smith said.

Among the topics being addressed are the genetics of breast cancer, breast reconstruction, stress management, keeping a journal, dealing with cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, art therapy and medical research.

Admission is $10 to cover the cost of lunch.

To learn more and register online for the symposium, see http://www.youngsurvival.org/champaignurbana.