DEERWOOD -- They say you’re a survivor from the day you’re diagnosed.
Ali Wallace learned that recently, amid her battle with Stage 1 breast cancer.
The remark came from her mom, Judi Smith.
“I never knew that until a gentleman had asked me if I was a survivor a few weeks ago,” Wallace said. “I said, ‘No,’ and Mom goes, ‘Yes you are. From the day you’re diagnosed you’re a survivor.’”
Smith would know -- not because of her background as a nurse, but because she is a nearly six-year survivor herself. The Deerwood woman got the news two days before Christmas 2013, after finding a lump in her breast earlier in December. Smith, 56 at the time, wanted to wait until Christmas was over to deal with her discovery. But when she had to see a doctor about a bladder infection just before the holidays, she mentioned the lump as well.
The news of her Stage 2B breast cancer diagnosis came Dec. 23.
Smith told her husband Pat when she got home that day, but couldn’t bring herself to talk about the news to the rest of her family members, who started gathering at the house for Christmas.
“I was spending a lot of time in my room not talking to other people and crying,” Smith said during an interview Friday, Oct. 11, at her home. “And I just knew I wasn’t going to get through Christmas without some help.”
She got a prescription for her doctor for medication to relax her and help get her through the next few days.
On Dec. 29, the family gathered again for a birthday party.
“She insisted that I come home early to help,” said Wallace, who graduated from Crosby-Ironton and now lives in Elk River.
The night before her father’s birthday party, Smith broke the news to her family.
Fast-forward to August of this year, and 42-year-old Wallace was forced to do the same.
She learned of her own diagnosis Sunday, Aug. 4, a day she’ll likely never forget for two reasons. At 3:10 that morning, her grandmother died after having had a massive stroke the week before. And about 4 that afternoon, she got an email confirming her suspicions of cancer.
Yes, an email.
After breaking the news of her grandma’s death to her 11-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, Wallace happened to check her email, where she saw a pathology report from the previous week’s mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.
Smith had an anesthesiologist friend decipher the technical terms. Wallace was scheduled for another test, one they likely wouldn’t do unless she had cancer. She called the hospital and spoke with an oncologist and was told only her doctor could discuss the test results.
“The following day, that Monday, I got a call from the cancer care coordinator just confirming that, ‘Yes, you do have cancer,’” Wallace said.
In hindsight, both women said they saw signs.
Smith recalls feeling an odd sensation, like that of her cellphone vibrating in her bra, in the months before her diagnosis. Wallace remembers feeling a poking sensation in her breast, like something was inside her bra. The mother and daughter regarded the symptoms briefly when they happened, but didn’t think about them again until after their diagnoses.
“Listen to your body; it tells you things,” Smith advised others.
Wallace also had heart palpitations beginning in June. A few weeks later she found the lump.
“And I knew right away that this was not normal because I’d had a fibroadenoma removed from my other breast when I was 23,” she said.
A fibroadenoma is a type of benign breast tumor. It typically feels rubbery and is easy to move around under the skin.
But the lump Wallace found in July was hard as a rock.
Several appointments, tests and rounds of chemo later, though, the 2.5 millimeter tumor is now less than a millimeter in size.
“It’s so encouraging to know the drugs are working and doing what they’re supposed to even though I do have some crappy days and feel like crud and don’t want to do this anymore,” she said.
For Wallace, chemo treatments on a Tuesday mean feelings of nausea and fatigue the following Friday through Monday.
“I never thought fatigue would be so bad,” she said.
But when the sick feelings hit, Smith comes to her daughter’s aid and usually spends the “bad week” with Wallace in Elk River.
“And there is nobody better than your mother when you’re not feeling well,” Wallace said while holding her mother’s hand.
It helps that Smith knows exactly what her daughter is going through. Though she didn’t have the nausea, Smith recalls the feelings of extreme fatigue she endured after chemo. She also got injections to boost white blood cells, which caused pain in her bones.
Even after dealing with those symptoms, Smith would trade places with her daughter in a heartbeat, if given the choice.
“I think in some ways it was easier for me as a patient than for me as a mom,” she said.
But Wallace never wants her mom to go through the pain of cancer again.
Smith already did her 12 weeks of chemo, her radiation, various medications and a bilateral mastectomy. The procedure consisted of a hip-to-hip incision and the removal of both breasts with immediate breast reconstruction.
Wallace will undergo the same surgery, likely in December, but will opt for implants instead of immediate reconstruction.
The chemo made it difficult for Smith to continue working as a nurse, so she took a six-month leave of absence during treatment.
“You realize what’s important in life, and it’s not a job,” she said. “I had talked to other women who gave everything to keep working and had nothing left for their families when they got home. And I’m like, ‘I can’t do that. I need them too much.’”
Wallace continues working through chemo as much as she can. Luckily, as a real estate agent’s assistant with Coldwell Banker Burnet, she works under a close friend, who is understanding.
“Typically if I get 30 hours a week, I’m doing good,” she said, noting some weeks she’ll put in more hours but others may be less, especially during chemo treatments.
She chooses to work because the alternative would mean sitting home alone during the day while her husband and kids are gone.
“I think I would just get too depressed sitting at home and having a pity party for myself,” she said.
But if a day does come up when Wallace feels too weak or sick to work, her boss lets her go home to rest and take care of herself, the importance of which Wallace is learning.
“It’s one time you need to put yourself first,” Smith said of cancer. “Your health is more important than anything else.”
Luckily, Wallace said her kids have handled her diagnosis pretty well.
“They actually do get along a little better than they did before,” she said. “Most days.”
They have been a means of support as well, especially when their mom lost her hair a couple weeks after the first round of chemo. Wallace recalls one day when she took her daughter Cara to soccer practice and forgot the cap she usually wears when she goes out.
“I said, ‘Cara, I forgot my cap.’ And she said, ‘Mom, it’s fine, you look beautiful without it,’” Wallace said. “And right then I was like, you know, this is pretty cool that my 11-year-old is totally fine with being seen in public with me with very short hair -- buzzed hair at the time -- because I thought the kids would have a hard time with me not having hair.”
Though the now-chilly fall weather forces Wallace to cover her head when outside, she typically opts to sport the bald look. Losing their hair was a momentous occasion for both mother and daughter. Smith had a buzz-off party. About 50 friends and family members gathered for a potluck to help her shave her head.
“I was taking charge of cancer,” she said. “It wasn’t going to control me. I was going to take control of it.”
Wallace had a similar experience. Her long blonde hair started falling out on a Monday and she shaved it on a Friday while at a friend’s cabin Labor Day weekend. Her parents watched the action via FaceTime.
“It just is a good feeling, and now I know how she felt the day of her buzz-off party,” Wallace said of her mom. “It’s like you need to be in control of it because it is hard.”
Now with her hair grown back and her tumor gone, Smith finally has days where she doesn’t think about cancer.
Wallace isn’t at that point yet, with her hairless head a constant reminder of her battle, but a close network of family, friends and even strangers keeps her going.
“It’s amazing how many people are willing to help you out without even asking,” she said, noting she’s received money from various sources, including a charitable donation of $500.
“I was just shocked when I got that in the mail,” Wallace said. “I was in tears because I was like, ‘They could have given that to somebody else. Why me?’ And that’s just kind of how I’ve been for quite a while, like, ‘Why are they giving me this? Or why are they doing that for me?’”
But as soon as she gets better and is financially able to, Wallace wants to pay it forward and help others facing similar struggles.
Smith, who retired in March, was able to pay it forward -- while working as a nurse in the radiology department -- by staying with women undergoing ultrasounds for potentially cancerous tumors. She gave out her phone number to many people as well, telling them to call her if they ever needed to talk.
“You just need to be able to talk to somebody when you’re going through all this because you just have crazy thoughts in your head,” Smith said, adding she feels an obligation, as a survivor, to help others.
One way both Smith and Wallace want to try to help others is by advising women everywhere -- and men, who can also get breast cancer -- to listen to their bodies, get regular checkups and not be afraid of mammograms.
A mammogram -- though not necessarily comfortable -- is a small price to pay for the early detection of breast cancer, Smith said.
Put yourself first and don’t be afraid to ask for help, the women added as advice for others dealing with cancer.
And for Smith and Wallace, the stubbornness that runs in their family is helpful, as they both insist cancer will not beat them.