Local cancer survivor reflects on challenges COVID presented to treatment

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Lori Smith was in the shower with her young child when she discovered a lump on her breast. She then made a doctor’s appointment where imaging confirmed it was cancerous.

On October 1, 2020, Lori was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which the American Cancer Society considers an aggressive form. Since then, she’s been through 13 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation and a double mastectomy.

“You definitely look at things differently when you think that they are fleeting or that they may end for sure,” Lori said. “I appreciate things that maybe I didn’t appreciate before.”

Breast cancer doesn’t run in the 35-year-old’s family. Lori said going through cancer treatment is lonely and doing so with COVID restrictions added a whole other layer of difficulty.

“To have to go through that with appointments with no family present, chemo with no one to sit in the chair with you, it is more challenging,” she said. “I had to hold my children with a mask on because getting sick when you have chemo isn’t an option. You definitely appreciate the small things, even though that sounds kinda cliche.”

Doctors, including the one who treated Lori, said it’s been frustrating and disheartening to see COVID’s impact on breast cancer surveillance and treatment.

“A lot of the imaging centers were closed and elective surgeries were canceled,” said Dr. Christa Jillard of SouthCoast Health’s High Risk Breast Cancer Clinic. “That amount of time, even if it’s six weeks, leaves so many patients not being seen and a backlog that then ultimately just compiles on itself.”

Dr. Jillard said at the height of the pandemic patients were tending to present in later stages, which made it harder to treat.

“The repercussions and ripple effect of COVID is not just about COVID and who gets COVID,” she said. “It’s that the patients that don’t have COVID but also still have life-threatening diseases can’t be treated in a reasonable time.”

Lori and Dr. Jillard are used to being in the operating room together, but usually as coworkers. Lori is an operating room nurse and works alongside Jillard.

“She was always kind of across the table from me when we’d do our breast cancer treatments on other women,” Jillard said. “So certainly it hits home but you know she’s just she’s been a true warrior and we’re so glad that she’s been able to get through this past year and hopefully have a great future ahead.”

Knowing she had two young kids at home, Lori said she never felt like giving up the fight. 

“There were days that were harder than others, but I always got out of the bed,” she said. “If you don’t constantly look for that light at the end of the tunnel then, I mean, you can’t stay in the darkness. You have to look forward, keep your head up. I’m ready for tomorrow.”

The next step in Lori’s recovery is breast reconstruction surgery, which she hopes will happen in the next month. 

Dr. Jillard recommends women start yearly mammograms at age 40 and self-breast exams at 25.

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