A Lighthouse in the Storm of Cancer

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 10, Volume 10, Issue 1

An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Joy Smith, RN, MSN [ Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula Cancer Center in Monterey, California ]

Joy Smith, oncology nurse navigator and social worker at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula Cancer Center, has been an important part of my life for nearly 10 years. She is one of the blessings that cancer has brought me. Yes, I said blessings. Throughout the days and years of my journey as a caregiver, and then as a patient with cancer myself, she has been by my side, nurturing, comforting, educating and encouraging me. I think of her as the lighthouse that guided me to a safe harbor to continue on with my life.

In 2003, at age 50, my husband fulfilled a promise to me and got his first colonoscopy. The results were uneventful except for a few polyps that were removed, and the message was “No problem, see you in five years” (five years instead of 10 because his father had passed away from stomach cancer). So when his doctor ordered another colonoscopy just three short years later because of some nagging digestive problems, we were unprepared for the diagnosis of aggressive stage 4 colon cancer.

The emotional impact was devastating. Procedures and appointments happened so quickly. This is when we were first introduced to Joy. Into the confusing world of cancer, treatment choices and hearing that this cancer was incurable, Joy brought a sense of calm and purpose. From our first meeting, she put us at ease and helped us to understand what to expect. But most of all, she was a resource that we knew we could use — a knowledgeable, real and caring person for us to talk to anytime.

For five-and-a-half years, my husband managed to live a full life despite the constant chemotherapy and procedures. It was three years more than we expected, and when the end came, Joy was there to explain to the family what was happening and how we could best support him in his last days. She reminded me that I could call her any time I needed to talk.

Little did I know that only a year and a half after losing my husband to cancer, I would need Joy. With my own diagnosis of HER2+ breast cancer, she was one of the first calls I made. She immediately made time for my daughter and me to come in to see her, and she worked hard to convince me that I had the resilience to get through the treatment necessary.

Joy encouraged me to attend a support group for patients with early-stage breast cancer that she had founded so that I would not have to go through treatment alone. I’ve met some amazing women through this group. But Joy didn’t stop there. She led me through the effects of chemotherapy, helped me with decision making for a bilateral mastectomy/reconstruction and gave me emotional support and strength when I needed it most — at those times when I wanted to give up.

It is not enough to “just” finish treatment. There were all of the questions about what next and lingering side effects and fears of recurrence. The next step for me was “Live Longer, Live Stronger.” Joy spearheaded the development of this series of classes to help us progress from patient to survivor. To not only survive, but to thrive! The class even came with a pedometer to make sure we got in our 10,000 daily steps.

And for those of us who were also caregivers and dealing with grief, Joy provides a beacon of light and a place for us at the Papillon Center for Loss and Transition (which she co-founded) to share our feelings and to heal. Joy, more than anyone I have ever met, understands that the “whole person” must be healed. Those of us who have been touched by her caring and love are changed forever by her compassion.

I thank Joy for the comfort she has given to me. She has taught me to have hope and that I have the resilience within me to move forward with life despite what cancer has taken from me. She is truly an extraordinary person and healer. Joy will tell you that it is her mission to serve. By her example, I now serve on the board for our community nonprofit Breast Cancer Assistance Group of Monterey County, which provides emergency financial aid to patients undergoing breast cancer treatment. And I am privileged to be able to call Joy my friend.