Breast Cancer Awareness Month: A student’s resilient journey

Oct 18, 2023
Rossie Smith (Breast Cancer Awareness Month)

Halfway through her degree at Newman University, student Rossie Smith was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) and juggled chemotherapy, radiation treatments and the regular stressors that come with being a university student.

Today, she has made incredible strides and will graduate in December with her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a minor in criminal justice.

“To those who prayed for me, I want to give a heartfelt thank you,” Smith said. “Most importantly, I want to say God has been and is everything that I need him to be!”

A resilient journey

In 2017, Smith began her studies at Newman University. Two years later, she received the life-altering news.

According to the American Cancer Society, TNBC accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers, and can show similar symptoms as other types of breast cancer. However, TNBC differs from other kinds of breast cancer in that “they grow and spread faster, have limited treatment options, and have a worse prognosis (outcome).”

“I cried for days as fear was trying to grip me,” Smith said. “I pulled myself together after many days of tears and I told myself that it was time to put on my fighting gear and prepare for battle.”

As she was grappling with her new diagnosis, Smith tightly held onto a quote that came from her daughter.

Rossie Smith during her chemotherapy treatments.
Rossie Smith during her chemotherapy treatments.

“My daughter told me, ‘The battle starts in your mind, Mom, and if you win that battle in your mind your body will follow.’ I held on to those words and I hold them dear in my heart,” she said.

Smith’s oncologist was determined to start treatment as soon as possible, and by November 2019 Smith had surgery for port placement and began chemotherapy shortly after. For six months, Smith underwent chemotherapy treatments every single week. Chemotherapy was followed by surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes, as well as radiation treatment for five days a week for three months.

“It was the hardest thing I ever went through, but with God’s help, I endured,” Smith said. “You are stronger than you think, and where you are weak God will use your loved ones to hold your arms up and carry the burdens. So many friends and family members have been with me every step of the way. I went a whole year without any income, but God supplied all my needs.”

Painful treatments and side effects from chemotherapy led to exhaustion and nerve damage that made everyday tasks a challenge for Smith. 

“I would be lying if I said I did not experience negative emotions, but the key to overcoming challenges and not allowing your feelings to govern you is faith in God,” she said.

Smith looked to this encouragement board with biblical scripture and faith-based quotes each and every time she went through radiation.
Smith looked to this encouragement board in the exam room each and every time she went through radiation.

Finding support at Newman

Smith shared her gratitude to her professors at Newman, who granted her “patience and support throughout this whole process.”

Wendy Sahatjian, Teresa Wilkerson and John McCormick gave me that extra push I needed, and I am so thankful for them,” she said. “Teresa is a very caring adviser with an exuberant personality, and I love her.”

Interim Dean for the School of Business Teresa Wilkerson has been impressed with Smith’s positive spirit and attitude ever since she first taught her in “Business and Professional Communication” class.

Teresa Wilkerson
Teresa Wilkerson

“Rossie sat in the front of the class and her exuberant smile and joyful personality always made me smile,” Wilkerson said. “Plus, her practical career experience was extremely beneficial to what I was trying to teach the students. This is one of the aspects of having nontraditional students in my classes — they can affirm to the other students how the information I am presenting really will benefit them and be purposeful.”

In a December 2021 Facebook post, Wilkerson shared how inspired she was by one of her students’ tenacity in rounding out her studies during finals week. She referred to Smith anonymously in the post.

Rossie Smith after chemotherapy treatments.
Rossie Smith after chemotherapy treatments.

Wilkerson wrote, “When you have been working with a student who has been battling breast cancer over the past year with surgeries and chemo and taking an incomplete in your class because she’s been deathly ill and … she musters the strength and surprises you with submission of her remaining completed assignments … that’s dedication and shows a spirit to fight like no other! You got this, my friend. Proud does not even come close to how I am feeling.”

As Smith’s adviser, Wilkerson said she is determined to help Smith achieve her academic goals and “cross that finish line.”

“I can’t wait to give her a big hug after she’s walked across the stage at her graduation in the near future,” Wilkerson said.

“Newman University has some outstanding instructors and there are several that I have taken courses with that I would like to acknowledge because I love the way they connect with the students,” Smith said. “Shout out to Jill Fort, Kristi Edwards and Larry Heck.”

You are stronger than you think, and where you are weak God will use your loved ones to hold your arms up and carry the burdens.”

Rossie Smith

To anyone working through challenges or adversity, Smith has some advice.

“No matter what you are going through or how bad your situation looks, everything you need to fight is already inside of you,” Smith said. “Remember that when you are going through something, you are moving in one side and out the other, therefore you cannot ‘stop.’ Keep going and do not give up.”