I first met Andrea Collins Smith in August when she was a guest on my radio show. This 36-year-old, married mother of six had tattoos up and down both arms, sparkling eyes, and the happiest smile I have ever seen. She also had a turban on her head, part of the uniform of a woman taking chemotherapy.
Three months earlier, Andrea had received her bachelor’s degree from Temple University. The next day, she went to see her doctor because she thought she had an infection on her breast. After several tests, she was diagnosed with stage four inflammatory breast cancer. This rare and aggressive form tends to be diagnosed in younger women such as Andrea. And the prognosis is grim.
She began a blog to chronicle her illness. In her opening entry, she told about how the cancer had spread throughout her body. She will be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life, and there was no hope for remission, just a chance to prolong her life.
It was the eyes and the smile that got me. There she was filling the room with joy as she talked about life and death, her bilateral mastectomy, and her hysterectomy. She said that death sits with her on the sofa, “but today, it said I was OK. I could have today.”
At the end of the show, we embraced as I thought “I’ll never see this woman again.”
But I did. Six months later she was a guest on my television special. Although her condition had not improved, she was able to delight in being alive without fighting against death. Somehow, she seemed even more vibrant.
And then last month I got the call I was expecting. Her condition had begun to rapidly deteriorate. And so her support system had mobilized. They had to find a way to care for her and her family now and over the long term. Plans had to be made for food, child care, and the children’s education and welfare. Andrea didn’t have the strength to be fully involved in these decisions.
So when I spoke with her last week, her voice was weaker, yet she seemed even more delighted to be alive. She said that, in a strange way, she felt herself healing and being more open to her life. “It seems every time they examine me, they find more cancer. But instead of telling myself ‘Oh no, the end is coming’ or ‘Maybe the next one will be better,’ I am simply open to what is happening and enjoying each moment.”
Enjoying? “Hell yes. My friend just took my children and me to Ocean City for the day. I was sitting on the beach, feelings the sun on my face and watching my children when I turned to my daughter Bailey and said, ‘Honey, this is the best day of my whole life.’ ”
She went on to explain that everything she loved dearly – her husband, her children, the ocean and the sea gulls – were with her at that moment. How could she not be happy, she wondered. “I seem to enjoy everything now, a good meal, a smile on my child’s face, sunshine or rain – everything brings me happiness.”
Andrea has no hope. She said hope was about expecting something from the universe and people rarely get what they want. Instead, they get what they get. “Ultimately, we need to be open to whatever happens to us and believe that is what we are supposed to have.”
She laughed often throughout the interview. And when I commented on that, she told me she had nothing to be unhappy about. “Not only am I blessed with so much beauty in my life, I have deep faith that gives me peace with the person I’ve become and the life I have.”
When I asked whether she had any further thoughts to share with those reading this column, she thought for a minute and said: “Don’t ever allow your circumstances or your situation to dictate your happiness.” And then she laughed.
Editor’s note: Andrea died July 5, 2008. Read her obituary from Philly.com.