By RACHEL LENZI
When Shelley Smith took part in a breast-cancer awareness walk in October in Compton, Calif., she expected to meet women of all ages who had been affected by the disease.
What Smith, an ESPN reporter and longtime AWSM member, didn’t expect was to see the entire Compton High School football team outfitted in pink, prepared to walk the course with her at 7 in the morning.
“It was so empowering, to see 17-year-old boys in pink, cheering for me!” Smith said. “There are things like that that make you feel good, to know that you’re doing something.”
Smith revealed in October that she was diagnosed in the spring with breast cancer, a disease that, according to the American Cancer Society, afflicts one in every eight women in the United States. There are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control states that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women – and it also afflicts men.
Smith’s diagnosis came as a result of a self-exam, as she noticed that her left breast appeared to be abnormal. In the rush of the NBA playoffs, her doctor contacted her with the results of a mammogram. She had breast cancer.
Initially, Smith didn’t want to publicly announce the diagnosis. Part of that hesitation came out of fear, but at the time Smith was overwhelmed not just by being diagnosed with cancer, but also in wading through the misconceptions about cancer and the misinformation that surrounds the disease. But she also realized something.
“Maybe I can help,” Smith said.
Now, Smith has found a calling in raising awareness of the disease, from starting a foundation that assists women in getting mammograms to explaining the necessity and the simplicity of annually having a mammogram, an X-ray that assists in early detection of breast cancer.
“It’s not pleasant, but it’s not painful,” Smith said. “Insurance companies tell you to do it every two years, but do it every year. People think, ‘Well, it doesn’t run in my family, so I can put it off.’ I didn’t, either. But 80 percent of women who have breast cancer do not have a family history of it. There’s many misconceptions as to why people don’t want to get checked for breast cancer.”
Smith’s diagnosis also became preventative. During a screening, her doctor also found a melanoma on her back – the root of skin cancer.
“I don’t know if I ever would have found that,” Smith said.
The response to the announcement of Smith’s diagnosis was overwhelming. On social media alone, people reached out to Smith and many said her diagnosis became the motivating factor in their decision to get screened for breast cancer, or to donate to breast-cancer research.
“I had no idea how many people’s lives have been touched by cancer,” Smith said. “People are fighting together. It’s been very empowering for me to know how many people are fighting for me and with me. I feel like I have a million supporters. I feel all of that support and I feel the need to give back.”
A recent fundraiser Smith staged with friends earned more than $2,000 in donations – enough for 20 mammograms. Smith won’t stop there. If a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer because of that mammogram, there will be outreach to a hospital and a grant formed that will assist with treatment.
Smith, however, still has to undergo a lumpectomy in January, then expects to undergo three months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation.
As one of ESPN’s most recognizable on-air personalities, she will continue her work based in Los Angeles, but knows that changes will come. Her red hair – one of her defining characteristics – could fall out, and she has already gotten fitted for a wig. Her immune system will become fragile, and she has to consider the rigors of travel and the exposure to germs.
“I’m going to take things slowly and respect the process,” Smith said. “Right now, I’m going to get as strong and as healthy as I can, by eating right and exercising every day, and I’m going to take care of myself and prepare for this.”
Continuing awareness of the disease, Smith said, is key.
“People might not remember about breast cancer in May, but they will in October,” Smith said. “We have to keep hammering it home. There’s a whole new generation of girls who need to be educated, and who can be proactive.”
Follow Shelley on Twitter: @shelleyESPN