In 2007, in her first trimester while pregnant with Noelle, Smith noticed some bumps on her shins. She decided to visit the doctor, who informed her that he believed she had a strep infection that had settled into her legs. Because antibiotics are not typically prescribed during pregnancies, Smith said her doctor suggested they give the infection six weeks to try to heal on its own.
As time went on, Smith started to notice what felt like a beaded necklace under her collarbone. Her doctor decided to order a biopsy so they could learn more about the bumps. During the surgery to remove the largest lump, Smith could not be fully sedated because of her pregnancy.
A few days later, the doctor told her the results of the biopsy: She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer of lymph tissue found in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, bone marrow and other sites.
Smith was immediately transferred to a team of doctors in Grand Rapids that included an oncologist and high-risk pregnancy specialists.
“They gave me the option of doing a light chemo (therapy) or just continuing to monitor it,” Smith said. “There was a lot of risks to chemo because it kills fast-growing cells, and a baby is a mass of fast-growing cells. For us, the biggest choice was at the beginning.”
Despite reassurance from the doctors that they believed the chemotherapy could be done, Smith and her boyfriend at the time, Kevin, decided to hold off on it. For the sake of their child, Smith said they decided to monitor the cancer growth with monthly magnetic resonance imaging.
The MRIs became more difficult in the third trimester, Smith said.
“I always felt so bad having to get those, because I would lie there with headphones on and know that Noelle is laying in a sack of water, and these sounds are just vibrating around her,” she said. “She would just kick and kick. It was probably one of my last MRIs where I couldn’t stop crying, because I felt so bad and like the worst mom in the world because I am making my kid go through this.”
Miraculously, through the rest of the pregnancy, the cancer had no significant growth. Noelle was born at full term on Jan. 25, 2008.
“I feel like, when I was pregnant, God wrapped his hands around her and protected her,” Smith said of Noelle. “It was an odd kind of feeling. There was someone else holding and nursing my baby. She should have so many things that aren’t right with her, but everything is good. For a 3-year-old, she is really smart. She is strong.”
Just three weeks after giving birth to Noelle, Smith started to go through chemotherapy. Two months later, when she had a week off chemo, Rachel and Kevin got married.
“Tyler was around and he was old enough to understand when I was going through chemo,” Smith said. “The first time he saw me bald, it was a shock to his system. The first couple times Tyler was over, he was a little uncomfortable and wouldn’t quite look me in the eye, but he just got used to it. I hope he knows that we did our best to maintain our house being normal during this time.”
Smith’s last chemotherapy treatment was in May 2008. She was pronounced free of the cancer the next month.
“Before I had the cancer, I was single, basically,” Smith said. “I was just an out-of-college student with a full-time job. ... I was constantly spending a lot of money.
My life was focused around me, me, me — and every now and then, someone else. I was really selfish.
“For Noelle, I really want her to understand how important she is,” she continued. “Our family wouldn’t be our family if it wasn’t for Noelle. It was through the course of all the stuff that happened, Kevin and I grew and matured so much. He was an awesome support system, an awesome dad.”
Smith said she is not afraid to talk to people about her experiences. She feels that it is important to talk to her kids about what happened and she wants to bring them up to maintain a positive attitude.
“I want them to be able to remain positive about things,” Smith said. “When I did chemo, I really thought that what got me through this was to remain positive.”
In order to celebrate her second and third years of being cancer free, Smith uses Facebook to post something positive about chemo every day for two weeks. She used the time to reflect on how her life changed because of the cancer and chemo.
This year, her third anniversary of being cancer free, Smith challenged friends to ask her questions about her experiences. To Smith, it is important to erase what she feels is the “taboo” of cancer and to let people know that being bald isn’t all that bad.
— By Stephanie Lulofs