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The story of my health battle

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Rhonda Smith-Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

In her line of work, Rhonda Smith-Simmons always encouraged women to go for regular mammograms.

The registered nurse worked full-time as the education officer at the Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre and made sure to follow her own advice.

In March 2013, she had breast cancer diagnosed and had to travel overseas for radiation therapy — it is now three years since her treatment ended.

“I actually got the diagnosis on my birthday,” Ms Smith-Simmons, of Devonshire, said.

“I kind of suspected that I was going to get that news.”

The 64-year-old, who spoke to The Royal Gazette as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, said her mammogram had “looked a little suspect”.

She had a repeat mammogram and a biopsy before the March 2013 diagnosis of stage 2 triple negative breast cancer, so called because the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth are not present in the cancer tumour.

But Ms Smith-Simmons caught the cancer early. She never developed the more common symptoms that can include a lump or mass in the breast, breast pain or redness.

“I had been feeling very tired but just thought it was because I was working a lot.”

Beyond that she had no symptoms.

“It was very early. The lump would not have been detectable by palpating. It was too small.”

She had a lumpectomy in Bermuda to remove the tumour, followed by a six-week course of radiation therapy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Centre.

“The radiation treatment actually didn’t cause me many side effects,” she said, adding that it was only in the fifth week that she started to burn from the radiation.

“My treatment ended early September 2013. I’m basically three years past the end of my treatment and 3½ since diagnosis.”

Knowing the benefits of keeping active and taking good care of herself during the treatment, Ms Smith-Simmons swam, walked and took part in a yoga study with the University of Pennsylvania that looked at how yoga therapy can help women undergoing radiation treatment. Ms Smith-Simmons credits this, along with several sessions of the alternative therapy Reiki, with keeping her relaxed prior to the daily appointments.

“I think I was very relaxed as I went into therapy,” she said. “You go in daily, Monday to Friday.”

According to Ms Smith-Simmons, the actual therapy itself takes minutes, with more time spent positioning to ensure the radiation targets the right area.

“It’s all very intricate. They want to avoid damaging any other organs in the body.”

Because she felt well throughout the treatment, Ms Smith-Simmons was able to continue working for the Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre from overseas.

“Most people will feel well during radiation and could go to work at least part-time.”

She found working to be therapeutic, because it gave her mind “something else to do”.

Her daughter, who lived nearby, was also a big support, as were her visiting friends and family members.

“It was very important,” Ms Smith-Simmons said. “Having a sister and a daughter overseas made it easier for me to have family support.”

However, with radiation therapy not yet available on the island, Ms Smith-Simmons noted that this level of support and the ability to keep working is not an option for everyone in Bermuda.

“I really had the best case scenario,” she said. “That’s why I think having the new unit here is going to be fabulous.”

The Centre is now building a radiation therapy facility, which will enable residents to get the full complement of cancer treatment on the island.

Ms Smith-Simmons added: “It’s phenomenal.

“I think it’s a very exciting time for Bermuda. I hope the community will get behind us and really support it.”

She added that “the most exciting thing is that no one will be turned away” because they cannot afford the treatment.

Ms Smith-Simmons, who is also an on-call nurse at Agape House in addition to her part-time work as the Centre’s LungSmart co-ordinator, also pointed out that radiation can be used in palliative care to treat pain.

She said the facility will now allow patients, who cannot travel overseas, to get the treatment on-island.

Rhonda Smith-Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)