“So Many People Were There for Me When I Had Cancer. Now I Get to Pay it Forward”
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You never forget the moment when you find out that you, or a loved one, has cancer.
Shauna Smith was just 24 years old and at the mall with her mom when she got the doctor's call saying she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. “When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you think, ‘I’m going to die,'" says Smith. “It’s so scary.”
Ten years later, Smith accompanied her father to his doctor’s appointment where he found out he had bladder cancer. And a couple years later, Smith was at the hospital with her mom, who’d been admitted for severe abdominal pain, when they were told the pain was due to pancreatic cancer.
“A lot of people reach out to me if they or someone they love find out they have cancer,” says Smith, an oncology key account manager at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. “I know how important it is to feel supported when you or a loved one is facing the disease. And considering all the resources we have at Johnson & Johnson, I wanted to make sure our employees felt that support.”
That's why last year, Smith started a cancer support group at Johnson & Johnson to do just that. For National Cancer Survivor Month, we're sharing her story.
Shauna: “It was 2002 and I’d just finished grad school. One day, I felt a golf ball-sized lump in my neck. I chalked it up to a pulled muscle due to an especially tough workout the day before and didn’t think much of it. But my mom made me promise I’d see the doctor if it didn’t go away.
When I went to my primary care physician, a look of worry crossed his face, and he scheduled a surgical biopsy right away. I thought he was overreacting. After all, I was 24 years old at the time. Nobody in my family had faced cancer. Cancer wasn’t even on my radar.
When I got the call with the diagnosis—Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—I cried. My mom cried. Your mind just goes to the worst possible place.
On the road to recovery—and a new career
I was referred to a top cancer treatment and research center near my home at the time in Southern California. Everyone told me Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was the ‘good’ kind of cancer to get because I’d most likely be cured. But it’s tough to wrap your mind around that when you’re facing chemotherapy and radiation.
The hospital had to give me my own room because so many people joined me during each treatment, including my mom and dad, my boyfriend (now husband) and at least two close friends. The support I felt was incredible. It definitely lifted me up during a really difficult time.ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
The hospital had to give me my own room because so many people joined me during each treatment, including my mom and dad, my boyfriend (now husband) and at least two close friends. The support I felt was incredible. It definitely lifted me up during a really difficult time.
After four months of chemo, I was off treatment for one month and then had another month of radiation. After those six months, I was cancer-free.
Before my cancer diagnosis, I worked in finance. But I’d always been intrigued by the career path that two of my best friends from college took, working in oncology sales for Johnson & Johnson. They were always talking about new cancer treatments and it was clear—especially after my own battle with cancer—that I wanted to do that. It felt like a calling.
I needed sales experience to make the career change, so I quit my job in finance, moved home with my parents and got a job selling copy machines. I did that for a year, then landed a job in pharmaceutical sales to bolster my experience even more. I was on a mission to work in oncology at Johnson & Johnson, and in 2006, I finally landed my dream job on the sales team at Janssen. Now, I’m an oncology key account manager on that same team.
Hearing the news that cancer has struck again
Everything was going so well—I’d beaten cancer and was working in a field I felt truly passionate about—when my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2011. Luckily, they caught it early. My dad was in the Navy and is very diligent about check-ups. In fact, he always had two physical exams each year—his Navy veteran physical as well as his regular doctor. During one of those routine exams, they found some blood in his urine.
Suddenly, my family and I found ourselves back at the treatment center. Fortunately, my dad’s treatment cured him.
Then, just a couple years later, my mom started experiencing severe stomach pains. The first bout was during a family trip to Hawaii. She was admitted to the hospital there and was diagnosed with pancreatitis. But her symptoms got worse when we got home. She’d get very full quickly after eating and was losing weight without trying. In addition to persistent stomach pain, she started experiencing terrible back pain.
Once again, my family and I were back at the cancer research center, where we learned that my mom’s symptoms were due to pancreatic cancer. My mom didn’t realize it was such a challenging diagnosis (it can spread rapidly and has a low survival rate), but I was devastated. She immediately started treatment, but the side effects were just too intense, and she had to stop after just two treatments. My mom passed away within six months of her diagnosis.
The power of support—and the gift of supporting others
Hearing you or a loved one has cancer forces you to imagine the unthinkable. Sometimes it requires you to live through it, like losing someone you love. The support my parents and I felt when each of us battled cancer was life-changing, and it always inspires me to do what I can to help others.
The support group has 140 members now, all Johnson & Johnson employees around the world. A third are cancer patients or survivors, a third are caregivers of a loved one with cancer and a third are those who joined as an ally, to be supportive of the group.ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
During the early days of the pandemic I was on our virtual national sales call meeting and mentioned the idea of starting a cancer support group for our employees. We have so many resources throughout all our divisions at Johnson & Johnson; I knew this kind of group had the potential to help so many people, but it felt like a big undertaking. Where would I even start?
A colleague in marketing, Mandy DiNuzzo, thought it was an amazing idea and started putting me in touch with other colleagues who helped me work within the employee resource group system.
In the meantime, a dear friend and colleague, Sara Smith, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said to me, ‘Now that I’m going through this, I realize how we need the support group you keep talking about. I’ll help you!’ Once Sara was on board, two other colleagues—Erin Hill, who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and Whitney Tortorello, a recent breast cancer survivor—joined the team as well. We were on a mission to get this off the ground—and we did.
We have 140 members now, all Johnson & Johnson employees around the world. A third are cancer patients or survivors, a third are caregivers of a loved one with cancer and a third are those who joined as an ally, to be supportive of the group.
Because the response has been overwhelmingly positive, many members have asked for smaller breakout groups where conversations about specific types of cancer can flow more easily. Because of this request, we created five subgroups: breast and ovarian cancer, men’s cancer, blood cancer, metastatic cancer, newly diagnosed cancer and a caregivers group.
These support groups give members an opportunity to share their personal stories about cancer. It’s so hard to hear those stories because they take me right back to my own experience with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as well as watching my parents suffer. I hate hearing that other people are dealing with cancer because I’ve been there. I viscerally know the thoughts and feelings they’re having.
But I also remember the incredible support I felt when I was in the thick of it. I remember how so many people rallied around my family through our cancer battles. Now, with this group, I can pay that support forward."
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