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In the summer of 2007, Tijuana Smith was busy caring for her 3-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son while keeping down a full-time job. When she had time, Tijuana also helped her younger sister care for their father who was battling cancer for the third time. Little did she know, her own battle with cancer was just around the corner.
"I figured I would get cancer one day."
"My dad had Hodgkin's lymphoma at 19, colon cancer in his 40s and then esophageal cancer, which took his life at the age of 56," Tijuana shared. After the funeral, Tijuana had a strange feeling: "I figured I would get cancer one day, and as the oldest of 3 siblings I thought I'd be first." She went home and did a breast self-exam, only to find a pea-sized lump in her right breast. Tijuana was only 36 at the time.
Tijuana had her first mammogram, in which doctors could see the lump she felt. A breast surgeon at a nearby hospital took a biopsy that confirmed it was breast cancer. The surgeon was prepared to operate. But Tijuana wanted a second opinion.
"I wanted to hear what the Fox Chase doctors had to say about me."
"I always knew Fox Chase was a great hospital. So as soon as I learned I had cancer, I wanted to hear what the Fox Chase doctors had to say about me," Tijuana explained.
During Tijuana's first appointment, shet met with her team of breast cancer specialists, including Ramona Swaby, MD (medical oncologist), Richard Bleicher, MD (surgical oncologist), Sameer Patel, MD (plastic and reconstructive surgeon) and others.
"The doctors had a great attitude."
"The doctors had a great attitude and were very knowledeagble. There was no question in my mind - I was staying at Fox Chase," Tijuana admitted. "At my age, the thought of losing a breast was devastating so I opted for a unilateral mastectomy with reconstruction."
After Dr. Patel explained all of the options, Tijuana decided to have a free TRAM flap procedure. In this surgery, surgeons use a woman's own tissue and fat from her stomach (tummy tuck) to build a more natural-looking and natural-feeling breast.
Several weeks later, Tijuana and her husband arrived at Fox Chase prepared for surgery. "One of the best things about Fox Chase is that my surgeons - Dr. Bleicher and Dr. Patel - work together so I only had one surgery," she said.
"The nurses were so helpful."
After the procedure, Tijuana arrived in her room, where she stayed for 5 days. "The nurses were so helpful because I couldn't do much for myself," explained Tijuana. "They helped make my stay as comfortable as possible."
"Dr. Swaby was extremely responsive."
Tijuana's next step was to meet her oncologist, Dr. Swaby, who decided it was time to begin chemotherapy. "During my treatments, Dr. Swaby was extremely responsive in managing and controlling my nausea and other side effects," said Tijuana. "I just adore her. During some rough times, she and her fellow, Julia Perkins gave me so much attention. They even arranged for home nurse care. That was golden!"
In the midst of her chemotherapy treatment, Tijuana decided to return to work part-time. "I needed to be busy and productive. Work was the perfect answer," explained Tijuana. "Dr. Swaby was really helpful in coordinating my disability and insurance issues with my employer. I couldn't have asked for more!"
Tijuana underwent genetic testing at Fox Chase. "With a daughter of my own, I want her to know her risk of breast cancer."
Since finishing treatment, Tijuana has returned to work full-time and has resumed her workouts. Tijuana has lifted weights to build her upper arm strength, which weakened during treatment. She felt good enough to sport a 2-piece bathing suit last summer!
Tijuana joined a breast cancer support group at Fox Chase, which she still finds extremely helpful in many ways. "It is uplifting to meet and talk to women who are veteran survivors."
If anyone asks Tijuana about Fox Chase, she responds, "Dr. Patel's reconstructive surgery made me look even better than before! That's how good he is." She admits that preserving her physical appearance was very important because of her age. "Looking back, I made the right choice," Tijuana shared. "I wouldn't have gone anywhere other than Fox Chase."