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Jaclyn Smith: Knowledge is Power

by Diana Price

Jaclyn Smith was too busy to have breast cancer. The successful actress, entrepreneur, and mother of two had things to do and places to go when she went in for her yearly mammogram in 2002. She had planned her appointment to get it out of the way before she took her daughter, Spencer-Margaret, to a summer intensive dance program in New York City. And even as her doctor told her that something looked suspicious, even as he followed up with a core biopsy, an ultrasound, and a needle biopsy, Jaclyn remained unfazed.

“I still thought, I’m fine, because I couldn’t have felt better and there hadn’t been any cancer in the family,” Jaclyn says. After the final biopsy, her doctor came back, and only then did she grasp the gravity of the situation. He said, “I have some bad news: you have breast cancer.” Now it was time to face the reality that into her busy and happy life a change was about to come.

“Your world stops spinning,” Jaclyn says. “And my first question was, Am I going to be here for my kids?” Her doctor assured her that because the cancer was caught so early, her prognosis was likely to be very good. Still, at that point Jaclyn remembers not hearing anything he was telling her.

“My advice to any woman who has a biopsy is: Don’t go back for results by yourself because you don’t hear anything clearly,” she says now. At the time of her diagnosis, her ability to process the information shut down. “My first reaction was: Take my breast off. Whatever it takes, I’m going to move on with my summer; let’s get it done. I think we don’t hear when something that traumatic happens to us.”

It would become clear, as she learned more about her diagnosis, that the stage of her cancer really required a lumpectomy and radiation, but at the time, she says, she was reacting out of fear and without the right information. It’s for that reason that Jaclyn continues to encourage women to engage a support system from the beginning. “Have someone with you—a girlfriend, your mother, your husband, another family member—somebody by your side to hear that news who will be able to sort it out.”

From the beginning, she says—after she was able to process the initial shock—sorting out the information she was handed about her diagnosis and making sure that she was educated about her health became a priority. At the time, learning about breast cancer was a bit like learning a new language. “At that point I had never heard the term core biopsy. I didn’t know about radiation or sentinel node biopsy. I didn’t know what these things meant.” But she learned quickly that the key to empowering oneself after a diagnosis is education. “Knowledge is power,” Jaclyn says. “Without it we’re lost.”

In Jaclyn’s case it was often her husband, Bradley Allen—a pediatric cardiac surgeon—who assisted her in her research. And it was his support, along with that of the rest of her family and close girlfriends, Jaclyn says, that truly lifted her through the experience with love. Though it was a difficult period for her children, who were teenagers at the time, their support was also critical. Her relationship with her daughter was particularly affected by the experience. While her son, Gaston, sought a straightforward, verbal assurance from his mother that she would be fine, Spencer-Margaret, she says, looked for the physical reassurance that her mother wasn’t going anywhere—coming into her room at night, holding her hand, changing plans with friends so that she could spend time with her. “My doctor told me that it’s especially tough on adolescent girls,” Jaclyn says, “and I really saw that [cancer] is a family disease. It affects everyone, not just the people going through the treatment.”

Jaclyn’s gratitude for the loving care she received has inspired her to support organizations that can provide women with a network like she had that will provide both information and emotional support. She has taken on advocacy roles for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and, most recently, for the Strength in Knowing: The Facts and Fiction of Breast Cancer Risk campaign. Strength in Knowing, a collaboration between the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health and Eli Lilly and Company, is designed to help women separate facts from fiction regarding breast health, and Jaclyn says the information they provide is invaluable. Knowing that she was truly blessed to have the resources and the support that she did during her own journey, she has been impressed by the variety and the depth of what is available to women who may look outside of a family network. “When you reach out, there is something for everyone,” she says.

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Making the effort to reach out and connect, she believes, can make a profound difference in a woman’s wellness during cancer treatment. “Support groups are important. Communication among girlfriends is powerful. Other women sharing that experience together will help you as much as anything.” And though there will be dark days, Jaclyn says, remembering her own sleepless nights, it is so many times the spirit of communion with others that will help lift you up. “Don’t shut yourself away; that brings you down more. That’s what I would share with women: surround yourself with people who can share in their experience and their knowledge because that’s what gets you through.”

In Jaclyn’s case, it was also the positive energy that she was filled with each day at work that helped her through the weeks of radiation that followed her lumpectomy. For more than 30 years, Jaclyn has been fueled by a career that has spanned modeling, numerous roles in television and movies, and entrepreneurial interests that now include a women’s fashion line with Kmart and a home furnishings line. But it was a coincidental in-flight meeting with one of the producers of the CBS drama The District that landed Jaclyn the recurring role of District Attorney Vanessa Cavanaugh, which she would tape during the period that she underwent her radiation treatments and would ultimately stay on for two seasons.

The entire staff of The District was very supportive, Jaclyn says, working her taping schedule around her treatments, and it became an incredibly positive experience. “The power of the mind is something,” she reflects. “I flew through radiation. It was like this new lease on life. I was just so grateful. I understood where I was in the process of my cancer, and I knew what it would take to get through my treatment.” With her goal in mind, she says, she focused on work and did not experience any side effects from the radiation. “I guess grateful just saw me through tiredness or radiation. I just felt, Wow, I am so lucky to have this; and I did concentrate more on the positive maybe because I was surrounded by such love.”

Of her entire journey, Jaclyn, says, it is the realization of her gratitude for the blessings in her life that remains with her today. “Instead of saying, Why me with breast cancer? I said, Wow, I’m here; I have a great family; I launched a furniture line; I got The District.” In the end, she says, “it puts it in real quick perspective—that we’re lucky to be here.”

With that renewed realization, Jaclyn continues to enjoy the many blessings in her life and relishes how well she feels as she nears the five-year anniversary of her diagnosis. She remains vigilant about her follow-up care, alternating mammography and magnetic resonance imaging screening every six months. She also continues to see her oncologist for regular checkups. A candidate for osteoporosis, Jaclyn also monitors her bone health, taking care to do weight-bearing exercise and always checking up on current research. She has been amazed, she says, by the breakthroughs in research that she finds changing the world of cancer treatment all the time.

Jaclyn’s dedication to a healthy lifestyle is not new. A dancer from a very young age and always very health oriented, she now eats only organic foods and tries to integrate any health- and wellness-related breast cancer research into her life. “I’m one of those very disciplined people,” she says, laughing at herself a bit as she goes on. “If they do a study on something and say it could cause breast cancer, I don’t eat it. My husband, as a doctor, says, ‘I think you may be taking it a little too far; let’s get real—I think you can have one French fry.’” But sticking to her guns about her diet and exercise gives her a sense of control, Jaclyn says; and she believes firmly in the power of positive thinking to effect wellness. Staying physically fit, eating well, and enjoying the pleasure of time spent with loved ones—all are obvious priorities as Jaclyn moves forward.

And because she feels so strongly that she was given so much during her own experience, another of Jaclyn’s priorities remains her support of cancer advocacy groups. A portion of all bedding sold from her home furnishings line through Comfort Solutions goes to breast cancer research, a portion of sales from her clothing line at Kmart is donated to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, and she continues to support Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

“Cancer can change your life in the sense that you really realize the value of things,” Jaclyn says; and it’s obvious that she has taken that lesson to heart.