In Megan Smith’s recovery from breast cancer surgery, there is an obvious theme. It is pink and involves a comfy recliner.
Inside her Beech Island home sits a big recliner, borrowed from her father, draped with a bright pink blanket her sister, Alyssa, embroidered all around with pink ribbons as Megan recovers from her breast cancer surgery.
It is an odd thing for a 26-year-old mother of two to have to face. A few days after surgery, her recovery got off to a disappointing start when she got the call about the pathology report on the lymph nodes taken out during her double mastectomy.
“He told me he took out nine lymph nodes, and out of the nine there was one that had a small tumor in it so we’ll have to have the chemo,” she said, sounding a little worn down over the phone. “I’ll do whatever I have to do. God has always taken care of me in the past. And I know he is going to get me through this.”
There was more bad news earlier that day. Her husband, Jason, who works for Capital City Ambulance, was sent to New York ahead of Hurricane Irene to help deal with the fallout from the storm.
“They’re evacuating hospitals up there because of the hurricane,” Megan said. “We don’t even know when he will be back. Hopefully, he won’t be gone that long.”
Jason grins about the experience later as he stayed with New York City firefighters, heroes of his ever since 9/11.
“They were real welcoming,” he said. “They cooked us all kinds of food and brought us bagels and all kinds of stuff. That was a dream fulfilled right there.”
He wasn’t too worried about having to leave Megan behind.
“She had a bunch of family out here,” he said, standing in their back yard. “She had somebody stay with her the whole time.”
In fact, he can turn in a circle in the back yard and point in the direction of several nearby relatives. The house has been flooded with food since word of her illness spread.
People Megan hasn’t seen in a long time find her and tell her, “We’re thinking of you.” An afghan on the couch shows a giant pink ribbon, a gift from one of her father’s co-workers at Pactiv. The woman, Joan Cooper, won it in a raffle at a breast cancer awareness walk.
“She said, ‘I just held onto it, knowing that God one day would tell me who it was supposed to go to,’ ” said Tim Rollins, Megan’s father.
Megan is smiling more today, her face made up the way she is used to seeing it in the mirror, and that is a comfort. The day before, because she is having trouble raising her arms after the surgery, her mother, Cynthia Rollins, was trying to help her fix her hair, and the helplessness got to her.
“And I lost it because I couldn’t raise my arms,” Megan said. “I could not use my arms to fix my hair the way I wanted to. That was it.”
“She’s always been a perfectionist, so not to be able to make it look perfect … .” Cynthia said.
“I don’t think I dwell on beauty that much,” Megan said.
“But you like to look your best,” Cynthia said.
THEY ARE SITTING together in the lobby of Augusta Oncology Associates’ downtown office, waiting to see Dr. Mark Keaton. Megan is filling out paperwork in beautiful cursive. When she would visit Megan’s elementary school, Cynthia could always pick her papers out from the others on the wall right away.
“The printing was so perfect,” Cynthia said. “It’s the artist in her.”
“That’s the only artistic bone in my body,” Megan joked.
Sitting with them in an exam room, Keaton can sympathize with Megan.
“I’m a cancer patient, too,” he said, after surgery for prostate cancer in May.
Megan will get a three-drug chemotherapy regimen called TAC – Taxotere, Adriamycin and Cytoxan – and Keaton goes over the potential side effects. Some are more immediate, such as potential nausea, mouth sores and loss of white blood cells that leave patients more prone to infection, which can be helped by an injection. Rarer ones are potential damage to the heart or, possibly, leukemia, Keaton said. And then there is the most visible side effect.
“Most of the chemotherapy affects the rapidly growing cells in your body,” Keaton said. “Unfortunately, your hair grows pretty rapidly so hair loss is very common with this particular treatment.”
“I had that in the back of my mind anyway,” Megan said. “I do not care about losing my hair. I really do not care about my hair. I just needed to know so that I can talk about it to my children now. Knowing is all that matters so I can be prepared. Knowing and preparing. That’s all that matters.”
“You feel like you can fight better when you know what you are up against,” Cynthia said.
MEGAN TAKES A STEP in that direction even before chemotherapy. After having long hair all of her life, she gets it cut short and goes wig shopping. Lucas and Lexi, her 4-year-old twins, sit in a chair together, watching a Scooby Doo cartoon on a phone while Megan tries on short, blond wigs at Cat’s Pajamas, a boutique inside University Hospital’s Breast Health Center.
“This one is most like me,” Megan said, as her friend, Nichole Glover, nods her approval.
Megan’s insurance will cover it if one of her doctor’s writes her a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis.”
Megan has already prepped Lexi and Lucas for it.
“I told them, ‘This is what is going to happen. My hair is going to fall out,’ ’ Megan said. “ ‘We’re going to be silly and play with wigs.’ ”
Lucas and Lexi are starting to get used to the new reality of Megan’s illness.
“The more I heal and get to being a little more normal, the more they adapt,” she said. “At first you could tell they were a little scared to be around me.”
The kids are at home as Megan sits inside the bay garage of Beech Island Fire and Rescue. She is in the fire chief’s recliner underneath her bright, pink blanket, Cynthia is at her side, as Jason jokes with his fire department buddies off to the side and cauldrons of spaghetti sauce steam on tables in front of them.
A steady stream of white plastic foam containers are filled and shipped out. By the end of the fundraiser, they will have served more than 770 spaghetti dinners and, with a cake sale and silent auction, raised more than $12,000 to help the family.
“It just shows the community comes out to support her so strong,” Fire Chief Justin Craven said.
Megan looks tired but smiles as, one by one, people sit down in the chair on her right to chat.
Many of the women who approach have had breast cancer. Some of them Megan doesn’t know, but they know about her now.
“She’s in the club,” Cynthia said.
“I definitely have a connection with a whole new group of people,” Megan said. “You have a bond with those ladies. And you look at life a whole lot differently now.”