Vibrant Margaret Smellie exudes confidence and positive energy. Always on the go, her full life includes a social work career, a host of friends and social activities—and she is a 21-year survivor of breast cancer.
Birthplace: Kingston, Jamaica
Residence: Bronx, NY
Occupation: Social Worker
BE: What are your favorite words to live by?
MS: My whole mantra is about fairness and justice for all. It is not just about what is fair but also about what makes good, common sense for the individual as well as for the (whole) community.
BE: What is your favorite book?
MS: The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the first book that I read as an undergraduate at Lehman College. I learned so much about Black people in this country, and am forever grateful for their history and hard work. They made life so much easier for immigrants like me. My favorite motivational book is The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav. His approach to spirituality is practical yet thought-provoking. I also like Iyanla Vanzant’s Faith In the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace, which I use for work. She presents a delicate balance between thoughts and action.
BE: What are the best lessons your parents taught you?
MS: Stay Close to family. My family members live all over the world, but when we do see each other it is like Christmas all over again.
BE: Finish this sentence: When I am not working I am . . .
MS: Busy, busy, busy. I have an active social life. I travel, go out to eat, and attend a variety of cultural activities with friends. Every December I attend as many as six performances of the Alvin Ailey dance theater; it is a ritual my friends and I began when Ailey was still alive, and continue to this day. I also enjoy performances of Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are inspiring on political, spiritual and emotional levels.
BE: How did you make the decision to become a social worker?
MS: From the time I was 11 years old I was fascinated with the life of domestic workers in Jamaica. At the time I did not have a name for it, but I knew that I wanted to be in the helping field.
BE: So it was a straight route to social work?
MS: I actually attended the National Academy of Design in New York and worked at a sample house for two years. I hated it. I eventually went to Lehman College for my bachelor’s in social work.
BE: How do you currently apply your social work training?
MS: I have been working in the Chemical Dependency Outpatient program at Bronx Lebanon hospital for the past 15 years. Many of my patients began using substances when they were very young. The behavior is so slow moving, gradual and subtle that it sneaks up on them. The substance use takes over their lives without them recognizing or understanding what is happening to them, and they spiral out of control.
BE: Please share your breast cancer journey with the Affirming Community.
MS: I was in my last semester at Lehman College, and I was writing a paper. It was a cold January day. I shivered and hugged myself; that is when I felt a hard lump on my breast. I had had cysts before, but I knew something was different. I went to my doctor the following day. He immediately did an exam and ordered a biopsy. The diagnosis was cancer and the surgeon removed four lymph nodes. I was given a choice of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. I chose the latter. I had chemotherapy once a month for six months. I was in my thirties and had no family history of cancer. It was a shock for me.
BE: How did you cope with losing your breast?
MS: I have never lived vicariously through a man, never put a relationship with a man before my relationship with myself. And I had great support on this issue from my cancer support networks, from listening to other women come to terms with this issue.
BE: So you had a good support system behind you?
MS: I had excellent support—support from my family here, my family in Jamaica, friends, schoolmates and teachers. I went to support groups at Cancer Care and the American Cancer Society; I took advantage of every resource available to me.
BE: Did cancer derail your life?
MS: Initially I stopped going to school. I stayed home for two weeks, but I decided that I would graduate on time with my class. Friends would pick me up and take me to school. Cancer helped me to identify who my friends really were.
Once I made the decision to have the mastectomy, I didn’t have much of a pity party. I had a real problem and I dealt with it. After chemotherapy I took Tamoxifin for two and a half years. I did not like the way that it made my body feel. I prayed a lot on it, researched the medication and followed my instincts. My doctor was not happy about the decision; he wanted me to stay on it for three years, but he was not living in my body. I felt better after a week and I haven’t looked back.
BE: Did you change your lifestyle as a result of the cancer diagnosis?
MS: I did make some adjustments. I cut out everything negative, including some people in my life. My approach was I love you but I have to let you go. I began to eat more healthily, to cut out fried foods, and to eat more vegetables and fruits. I have always played netball, and I walk a lot.
BE: What is your advice for other women who are afraid to go for mammograms specifically, and for medical checkups in general?
MS: It is a fear that you need to get over; it is about saving your own life. I am a social worker so the advice that I share with clients I have to apply to my own life. It is helpful for me to be in a field where I show others how to deal directly with the negative and to emphasize the positive. It has been a good marriage.
For more information on breast cancer prevention and treatment, please visit Cancer Care at www.cancercare.org and American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org. Although today is the last day left of Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the nation is riveted by the tragedies and destruction wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, we need to embrace vigilance about our health year-round. Stay well Affirming Community. BE.