Author DebiLyn Smith relies on humour in Running From Cancer to help others cope
Author DebiLyn Smith likens getting cancer to a lottery. “Everybody is born with a few tickets,” she tells the Georgia Straight over the phone from her home in Houston, B.C. “You can give yourself more tickets by smoking, and you get a few more tickets by being overweight. It’s like any lottery—the more tickets you have, the more chance you have of winning.”
In her book Running From Cancer: A Tilted Memoir (Red Toque Books), Smith relies on her own experience to help others avoid her fate by reducing the number of these dismal tickets. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she endured four surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments before recovering her health.
Running From Cancer is littered with funny anecdotes, including a description of how she would vacuum her hair off a pillow each morning. She recalls for the Straight that when she would encounter a friend, she would pull a clump of hair from her head for dramatic effect.
Smith, 53, says that when she travels to other communities, she drops off a copy of Running From Cancer at the local cancer society. She hopes that this will help put it in the hands of people undergoing chemotherapy, who might like something amusing to read.
She emphasizes that she was in excellent physical condition before she became ill, keeping fit by hiking and downhill skiing. Still, she says, “If I had known how bad this is, I would have definitely tightened my anticancer belt a bit more.”
Her lowest point came in the midst of radiation treatments when she emerged from the shower and observed herself in the mirror.
“My hair had fallen out,” she recalls. “I saw these little nubs of grey starting to pop back up. I saw this shrivelled-looking breast.”
Then she quips: “It was a bad day to try on bathing suits.”
Smith has since learned that perimenopausal women face higher risks if they consume significant amounts of alcohol. That’s because their livers metabolize alcohol ahead of excess estrogen, which has been linked to breast cancer. Alcohol consumption was routine for Smith and her friends at the end of the day.
“The maximum [healthy amount] for women is three to seven drinks a week,” she says. “We were up to 20 drinks a week, easily.”
Smith also highlights the importance of vitamin D supplements, which numerous studies have linked to lowering the risk of cancer. In addition, she drinks lemon juice every day because according to her, staying well hydrated is also helpful in avoiding the disease. And she’s included healthy recipes in her book, including a Sinless Chocolate Macaroon for all the chocoholics out there.
After her first surgery, which removed half her breast, a tiny amount of cancer was detected in a nearby lymph node. She is grateful for the 21st-century technological advancements that made this possible.
“Anytime I go to a [cancer fundraising] relay or anything like that, I thank everybody personally for donating—especially to the Terry Fox [Foundation], because it all goes to research,” Smith says. “One year before if I had had that cancer, it would have been through all of my insides by the time they caught up to it.”
Smith, who also writes mystery novels, started a blog after being diagnosed with cancer. It is both amusing and blunt, even featuring a photo of her collapsed breast, a result of her partial mastectomy. The tissue was recently reconstructed.
She says she decided to present images like this because it’s important to show people what cancer can do to them. She compares what she’s shown on her blog to cigarette packages that include grisly images of cancer survivors with holes in their throats.
“For me, it’s definitely a fight,” she declares defiantly. “That’s why I wear my camo pants—I’m in my own army against cancer. Call me Sgt. DebiLyn Smith.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @csmithstraight.