We are sending balloons to Jen's funeral. Nothing pink.
— A message I received from a Champaign Young Survival Coalition member
Jennifer Arnold Smith, age 36, died last week. I met her via the Champaign affiliate of the Young Survival Coalition—an under-40 breast cancer group she helped launch. I didn’t know her very well, but she helped me as she helped so many others diagnosed with breast cancer—with her writing, her experience, and her openness.
I can remember a time before my breast cancer diagnosis when I would hear that someone had cancer and I would feel the need for a hushed tone. After I was diagnosed and experienced how uncomfortable people were around me, I could truly appreciate what Jen did so beautifully, which was talk and write about her Stage IV life. Her candor informed me how to talk to the people in my life.
You may know her story. If you don’t, I won’t tell it because she tells it best in her two books (Learning to Live Legendary and What you may not know: my life as a Stage IV cancer patient, her blog, and her presentations. Buy these books. The proceeds go to her six year old son, Corbin, who she sweetly called her “favorite”.
A few themes from her writing that I want to underline:
- Lack of support for Stage IV. She pointed out that although 30% of breast cancer patients become Stage IV (where cancer has spread to other organs), only 2% of research money goes toward studying it. This is beyond unfair. People don’t usually die from early stage breast cancer, however, people almost always do die of Stage IV breast cancer. In contrast, Stage IV testicular cancer is considered very treatable. So, when Lance Armstrong had Stage IV testicular cancer, it was a very different thing than Jennifer Arnold Smith getting the news just three months after she completed treatment that the breast cancer recurred and spread. The odds were overwhelmingly against her.
- Grit and grace. In 2011, Jen created a bucket list called "The Magic 7" and accomplished them all. The following year, she chose a goal a month—"The Delightful Dozen". In her words, “I truly am content in my life. I've learned my time is a precious commodity. I've also learned that quality of life is extremely important, especially when quantity of life is unknown.” She appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show and won Guiliana Ransic’s Fab U Wish contest. She saw her beloved son go to kindergarten. She wrote those two books you are going to buy. This lovely lady was a badass. Her grit and grace are especially helpful to me as an early stage patient. Although I do not know if I would ever be in her shoes, I do know by her example that if that happened I could still be happy. That is an amazing gift.
- Think before you Pink. She did not like pink because of the co-opting of the color and exploitation of breast cancer patients by corporations that did little to nothing to actually help. As we head into Pinktober, called because during Breast Cancer Awareness Month companies flood the marketplace with pink products, some of which ironically are linked to cancer, I’m reminded that I once heard her call the pink ribbon a noose. I fell in love with her a little bit when she did that. She told the truth which wasn’t a very pleasant one, and did not try to pretty it up for anyone for a profit. That’s the exact opposite of what many organizations do. Words she used to describe another patient’s photos fit the snapshots of her life:
They are a vision of breast cancer that is too often sugar-coated with platitudes, sassy t-shirts, fun-filled fundraising galas. For some, this reality is too much to bear. But until we as a society are willing to see cancer for what it is, our capacity to support the diagnosed will always be limited.
Jennifer Arnold Smith made the most of her life. We can all learn by her example and make experiences for yourself and for those around you more joyful. I invite you to join me in celebrating her life by writing your own "Magic 7" and "Delightful Dozen". Instead of buying something pink, give to the Corbin Smith Fund and/or to the Imerman Angels, an organization for which she volunteered. Click here to learn how.
By doing so, you, too, have the opportunity to live as legendary as Jen did.