"How am I going to survive? And secondly, how am I going to financially survive?"
These were the first thoughts that raced through Amy Smith-Morris’ mind after receiving the devastating diagnosis of ovarian cancer. It was the fall of 2016 and she was just 30 years old.
It came at a time when life was unfolding in front of her. After completing her degree in pharmacy at USask, she went on to obtain her Doctorate of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, specializing in oncology and cancer care.
She had just married and come back from honeymooning in Italy and Greece when she found out she had a tumour the size of a football.
The symptoms had been subtle; mild weight gain which she attributed to two weeks spent eating pasta and pizza and drinking wine. There was also bad heartburn.
Her doctor sent her for an ultrasound, which revealed the mass.
Surgery quickly followed, then chemotherapy.
As cancer patients often do, Smith- Morris turned to support groups to help her through the ordeal. The problem was, those groups did not speak to her particular concerns.
“I was the youngest person there by 20 or 30 years sometimes,” she explained. The age gap meant that, even though they all had cancer, their struggles were different.
For instance, while many had grown children and paid-off mortgages, Smith-Morris wondered if she would ever be able to have children and how she could pay off her student debt.
"It's hard to really connect and resonate with someone that's at such a different life stage than you are," she said.
Although she didn’t know it then, that observation would lead her into a series of unexpected ventures.
Smith-Morris went home to Abbey, Sask. for Christmas. A question from someone in her community inspired her to act. He had confused chemotherapy with radiation.
Smith-Morris decided to livestream her chemo sessions on her Facebook page Amydee PharmD, to help people become better informed with the cancer treatment process.
“I just felt like if people don’t know what this is like, then it’s going to be even more terrifying,” she explained.
It was an uncharacteristically vulnerable step for someone who thinks of herself as normally a private person.
Smith-Morris was overwhelmed by the response. The livestream received more than 26,000 views and garnered plenty of comments. They came from loved ones of cancer patients, and cancer patients themselves—including young ones like her.
“It just really seemed to break open a very quiet discussion,” helping people overcome their fear of asking questions, Smith-Morris said.
In social media, she had found her support network, one that still extends around the world.
“It’s so nice to be able to have someone that’s parallel in your experience,” she said.
Out of that came a special labour of love. Her book, Surviv(her), tells the story of Saskatchewan women battling cancer.
Smith-Morris teamed up with Warman photographer Nancy Newby to produce the book, a simple collection of candid portraits and brief passages in the women's own words. It was released in December 2017.
The inspiration came from the photo blog and book Humans of New York, Smith- Morris said.
In her own profile, she wrote “I was just starting. I was just getting warmed up.”
Still, even among younger women with cancer each story is unique, with a power all its own. Smith-Morris mentions Christina who was diagnosed at just 19 years old. She feels a special connection with her father. He died of cancer after she recovered from hers.
“She’s just so selfless,” Smith-Morris said of the compassion Christina reflects in her story.
Proceeds from the book, which sells for $40, go directly to women’s cancer research. Since it’s release, over 250 copies have been sold. As Smith-Morris says on the Surviv(her) website, “Detecting and treating women's cancers needs to improve. With survival rates for ovarian cancer unchanged in the last 50 years, it's time to start demanding change.”
Along with her undertakings as a print author, Smith-Morris also shares her sometimes harrowing experiences on Instagram and Facebook to educate patients and their supporters about living with cancer. And if her pursuits as an activist and author weren’t enough, following surgery and chemotherapy, she has since returned to competing as a powerlifter on the national stage.
As a cancer pharmacist, she said knowledge gained through experience helps her better relate to what other patients are going through. There are some things that aren’t mentioned in academic training, such as toenails that hurt and fall off after chemo.
Her efforts to educate and support other young women with cancer aligns with the philosophy she has lived by from early on in her pharmacy career: “If I can just help one person, then this makes it worth it … my career … my education, my exams.”
Smith-Morris is focusing her attention on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. She uses Facebook to publicize charity events such as Deadlift 4 Cancer (scheduled for October 27, 2018), and share information useful to young cancer patients. She said she uses Instagram as a kind of abbreviated blog space—putting up ideas, questions for discussion, and passing thoughts to document her experience.
Meanwhile, life for Smith-Morris is on the upswing again. She finished chemo in March 2017, and is now feeling very well and back “doing the things that (she and her husband) really love, in good health.”
In addition to her work in cancer care, she is also a researcher and guest lecturer in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at USask. Last fall she was named one of CBC Saskatchewan’s Future 40 (young leaders), winning in the Teaching and Healthcare category for her work on social media and Surviv(her).
Through her experience, both as a cancer survivor and as an cancer educator, Smith- Morris is in a unique position to see all sides of everyone’s story. She is certain of this: “Helping people with cancer in some regard will be in my life forever. It’s like a part of me now.”
Smith-Morris gives us her three main tips when talking to someone with cancer. For more insight, visit her website survivher.ca.
Some days it seems like cancer is all around. As a friend or family member standing on the sidelines, it’s difficult to know what to say or do when someone you love is facing this terrifying diagnosis. As both a cancer pharmacist and cancer survivor, I have learned what works and what does not. Below are three tips when talking to someone with cancer.
Don't ask for a miracle
Cancer is often thought of as just one monstrous disease but it is actually a thousand different diseases all under one umbrella term.
Some types of cancers are deadly but others are curable. Saying to someone that you’re “praying for a miracle” when a cure is not only probable but likely, can be both startling and insulting.
Without knowing the specifics of a diagnosis, it’s impossible to know the outcome. Some types of cancer need medicine and science rather than a miracle.
Don’t over do the positivity
Everyone has bad days and this doesn’t differ after a cancer diagnosis. It is completely normal and allowed. But some feel the only way to interact with someone battling cancer is to flood the conversation with positivity.
There is nothing more irritating than having rainbows and sunshine shoved at you when you really just need to get something off your chest. Statements like “well at least you have…” or “look on the bright side…” are not going to be helpful.
If someone with cancer is expressing a frustration, listen. It’s that simple. Listen, provide your opinion, and move on.
Don’t ask ‘what can I do’
“Let me know what I can do for you” is a reflex statement almost entirely empty of meaning.
Instead of asking if there’s anything you can do to help, just do. Leave supper, shovel snow, or walk the dog. It does not have to be complicated or involve a lot of planning. If you want to help, just do.
Photos by Matt Ramage
Are you a cancer survivor living in Saskatoon? Make sure to check out Amy’s latest exercise program The Cancer Fighter program is a specially designed for those who have been diagnosed with any type of cancer. The program is a combination of strength-based movements (bodyweight and barbell) and aerobic training.
Monday and Wednesday @11am-12pm
Tuesday and Thursday @ 7-8pm
For more information head to: http://www.synergystrength.ca/cancer-fighter