Finding beauty during a difficult time
I am no stranger to hardship.
My name is Paris Smith. I am 36 years old, and I live in Atlanta, Georgia, where I work in healthcare as a medical assistant, a job I love because I naturally enjoy helping people. In 2015 I was diagnosed with relapse remitting multiple sclerosis. For months, I lost the ability to walk, and I didn’t know when I would walk again. During that time, I learned I had to fight if I wanted to see any improvements in my health. If I hadn’t gone through that, I don’t believe I would have been able to cope with my next diagnosis.
In March 2021, I learned I had stage II triple-negative breast cancer. I was very taken back.
I remember everything all too well. I had felt a lump in my breast, but I didn’t think anything of it. When I discovered a second, smaller lump, however, I set up a mammogram appointment. Afterwards, I felt so afraid as I ended up needing an immediate ultrasound. My fears only grew when I needed to get a biopsy done on both lumps. I had to wait over a week for the results. It was a Friday afternoon when I received a call from the radiologist and heard the dreaded words “both tumors had cancer cells.” I could not stand on my own two feet as the news took the breath out of me. I cried and cried. I couldn’t understand why I had cancer. Wasn’t a diagnosis of MS enough for one body? Where did the cancer even come from? I had no family history. I was so down and sad. But, after I shed my tears, I remembered my MS experience and realized I needed to fight.
In April 2021 I started 12 weeks of chemotherapy which included AC and Taxol. I lost my hair around my second treatment. When my friend suggested that I do a photoshoot, I thought, “I just lost my hair, so, no, I’m not getting photographed!”
This turned out to be a defining moment in my life. You know why? I went to that photo shoot. Not only that, but when my friend said, “Do it without,” I took my wig off. I felt so liberated. That’s when I came up the with hashtag #BeautifulwithMSandCancer. I knew from that point on, I was going forward in this journey with a positive state of mind. I found beauty in the most difficult time in my life.
These are the lessons I’ve learned for staying positive during a difficult medical treatment:
1: Talk to your medical team about your side effects to get help.
Aside from the nausea and loss of hair from the chemotherapy, the Taxol, in combination with having MS, worsened my neuropathy. After talking with my healthcare provider, I was able to up my dose of gabapentin, which helped a lot. Other side effects I experienced were the darkening of my hands and nail beds. I prescribed myself lots of gorgeous nail color. No one can stay positive when they’re not feeling well or they’re upset over a change in physical appearance, so find out what you can do to feel better.
2: Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. All of it.
In October of 2021, I underwent a unilateral right breast mastectomy. That was a lot to take in. I was relieved that my surgeon removed the tumor and 19 lymph nodes, but when I had my PET scan done in November, cancer remained in my pectoral area. No further surgery could be done. My original 30 rounds of radiation became 35 rounds. Dealing with the skin changes from radiation was extremely hard as was managing the stress of residual cancer. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions, but I had to feel my difficult feelings to get past them and feel good again. Another thing I learned from having MS was that I couldn’t really feel happy when I tried to gloss over my anger or sadness. I like to write my feelings out, and I highly recommend writing in a journal, notebook, or computer as psychological self-care. But talking with someone who understands you and won’t judge you is another great way to process emotions.
3: Manage your stress and prioritize your well-being.
Through it all I focused on maintaining a positive well-being by managing my stress. There’s nothing quite like breast cancer to amp up the stress levels, and as it plays a major role in MS relapses, I’m especially motivated to lower the stress I experience. Going through 35 intense treatments of radiation was extremely difficult, but I gave myself extra time for my favorite hobbies, writing and reading, so I could relax and find inner calm.
4: Find beauty in yourself and in the path before you.
Since the day of my photo shoot, I choose to find beauty in everything I experience within this journey in my life. I embrace all of me.
It may feel funny to see yourself as beautiful when you are going through treatment. You may feel more insecure about yourself than you ever have before. Look, neither MS or breast cancer is an experience I would’ve ever wanted, but they have been opportunities for my eyes to open up and see good things, especially about myself.
It’s a choice. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but even when it’s hard, I hold my head high, eyes wide open, while I seek and define joy and beauty for myself, every day. Try it for yourself.