Treating Physicians, Tracey Childs, Sean Fischer, and Robert Wollman, Treat Betsy Smith at Saint John’s Health Center.
Diagnosed with rectal cancer in September of 2014, Betsy Smith discloses she had gastrointestinal issues for most of her life. When Betsy went to see a doctor for hemorrhoids, she discovered her diagnosis was far more complex than hemorrhoid surgery; her scans revealed a mass in her rectum that looked cancerous, and she would need to get a biopsy to confirm whether the cancer was localized or had spread to the rest of her body (metastasis).
Life Changing Moments
In her testimonial, Betsy’s life-changing moments could be attributed to three vivid memories, which some may call, a hero’s arc. She recalls the moment of getting the sudden news of having cancer as “the scariest moment of my life.” She wasn’t sure how she was going to make it. Her second shift in perspective came months later while receiving neoadjuvant therapy, such as radiation, and chemotherapy. Betsy depicts the moment determination sparked a fire in her. “There was one day in the hospital I thought, ‘I am going to die,’ I felt that bad. I looked at the poster [my daughter] made for me and I said to myself, ‘I’m not going anywhere!’” Her last shift in attitude came two years later after being declared cancer-free. Betsy wants to support those going through a similar diagnosis, “all I want to do is help others,” she admits. To be shakingly afraid in one moment, empowered in another, and then to use one’s power to empower others is by definition the stuff made of heroes. Her treatments may have been straightforward; however, her inner journey was nothing short of miraculous.
“I needed to be there for my children.”
Treatment of Rectal Cancer
Through a friend, Betsy found Dr. Tracey Childs, a general surgeon at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. Right after her initial exam, Dr. Childs was the one who told Betsy she most likely had rectal cancer. Rectal cancers are common, with roughly 200,000 cases diagnosed a year, according to cancer.org.1
Her biopsy came back positive for stage 3, locally advanced rectal cancer. Her prognosis required a multidisciplinary team of treating physicians: Dr. Sean Fischer, medical oncologist, Dr. Robert Wollman, radiation oncologist, and Dr. Tracey Childs, surgical oncologist. Locally advanced rectal cancers are usually treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation to initially shrink the tumor(s), followed by surgery to remove the tumor(s) entirely, and then with adjuvant chemotherapy.2 This approach is considered standard of care for locally advanced rectal cancers. It is medically referred to as, Total Neoadjuvant Therapy (TNT), and requires more than one specialty to treat. Clinical trials have shown TNT to improve outcomes by decreasing local recurrence and increasing the 3-to-5-year survival rates.3,4
Betsy dealt with her cancer head-on; she didn’t want to wait for treatment after her biopsy came back positive. She started radiation therapy one week after her biopsy. Under Dr. Wollman’s guidance, she received radiation treatments for 30 days to shrink the tumor. She was treated with chemotherapy shortly after under the guidance of Dr. Sean Fischer, in which her treatments lasted for another 6 weeks before the removal of the tumor. Surgery was scheduled in January of 2015, under the care of Dr. Tracey Childs, who removed her tumor and placed a temporary colostomy bag. To her dismay, Betsy, unfortunately, had to deal with having it for one year.
Betsy’s surgery left her recovering in the hospital for 14 days with many infections. “I don’t do well with surgeries,” she says. Betsy accounts in her testimonial this was typical for her to have a longer recovery, or even a complication. She needed to start adjuvant chemotherapy treatments but, waited one month for her infections to heal to begin.
Betsy’s care team was consistently by her side throughout in an unremarkable way. They checked in on her, she never felt her questions went unanswered or for very long, and she exchanged numbers with her care team including with her nurses and physicians. She remarks, “all throughout this, my team was unbelievable. Anything I needed, they were available to me, and that doesn’t happen just anywhere.” She is still in close contact with her entire team.
Betsy’s battle with cancer lasted over two years. Today, she is cancer free, and has been since 2017.
“Dr. Childs and Dr. Fischer saved my life.”
Hear Betsy discuss cancer, helping others, and her care team.
Betsy Smith interviews with Saint John’s Cancer Institute, August of 2022.
Do You Need Cancer Support? Ask Betsy.
“I know people need support, and they don’t have it.”
Betsy felt uncommonly fortunate to have a huge support system to help her throughout her cancer journey. She had friends fly in while her care team was more than supportive. It felt to her like, she was too fortunate even to be blessed with so much community at her crucial moment in life.
Although her battle is over, she continues to be an active support line for others at Saint John’s Health Center who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, “I know people need support, and they don’t have it.” She further argues, “doctors, and nurses…they know the medical part, but they’ve never been through it themselves, so they don’t exactly know what you’re going through, especially the mental part.”
She has been instrumental in creating a support group for those undergoing cancer treatments at Saint John’s Health Center. Patients-helping-patients? It may be the future for cancer support, and what a wonderful thing to be had during a most trying time in one’s life—a friend who has traveled down the same road. “It’s such a bond that can’t be broken,” relates Betsy.
“All I want to do is help others.”
In her testimonial, she recalls the day Dr. Childs called her, offering a patient for her to help. “‘Okay, I’ve got someone for you. She’s not doing well mentally or physically. Can you talk to her?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’” Betsy would visit the hospital every day to talk with patients, telling them they are not alone, and offering comfort when they needed it. Dr. Fischer reached out to Betsy too as well and asked her to talk with one of his patients. This dedication has continued through today.
“I know if I need anything medically, they are here, and if they need anything from me with someone whose been diagnosed, I’m the first person they call.”
Why does Betsy compassionately give back? She felt a void in her life. For two years Betsy’s “job” was surviving cancer and all the instructions it came with. “It’s hard getting back to normal,” she says. Helping others through their diagnosis gives her a sense of peace and joy.
Betsy Gives Advice to Others
- Have a good attitude and believe you will beat this, because you will.
- Think of something you are grateful for, every day.
- Do not go online and research your diagnosis- you need to focus on your healing.
1Rectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version – NCI
2Rectal Cancer Treatment, by Stage | How to Treat Rectal Cancer
3 Total neoadjuvant therapy for rectal cancer: An emerging option – PubMed (nih.gov)
4Locally advanced rectal cancer: The past, present, and future – PubMed (nih.gov)