The highly resonant sound from Denise West-Smith’s handbells makes beautiful music with fellow church handbell choir ringers. They play from the same composition, yet each individual contributes a tone unique to the bell they ring. Much of the music Denise and the choir and quartet members play has resounded for centuries.
As Denise rings the bells, there is an acute awareness of the legacy of her life, faith and fight will, too, live on. Despite undergoing life-long cancer treatment for metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer, she plays on. “Each day is a blessing and an opportunity for me to bless someone else.”
The support, love, and prayers she’s received are her pillars of strength. The retired Coca-Cola employee’s gratitude toward her family, church (Acworth United Methodist Church), and the Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers (NGOC) Marietta Cancer Center team is immense.
After a lumpectomy, six chemotherapy treatments, and 30 days of radiation in 2001, Denise was in the clear until July 2008. After a gallbladder attack, an MRI showed a malignant mass the size of a tennis ball in her liver. Dr. Don Shaffer, Denise’s NGOC cancer doctor, sent her for PET scans. The results weren’t good. The scans revealed cancer had spread to multiple places including her lungs, bones, the back of her neck and spine, and unfortunately, her brain.
“I knew then I didn’t have long to live,” said Denise. “I had Stage 4 breast cancer and brain tumors so I thought seven months to two years max. When I asked Dr. Shaffer about my odds, he told me my prognosis wasn’t good, but there were aggressive treatments to combat my advanced cancer. I went home that night, sat down with my family, and gave them the news.”
After having a “good cry” at the kitchen table, Denise and her family made a decision. “I can fight this and give it everything I’ve got or I can just give up and go.” The consensus of her husband, John, and two teenagers was for Denise to fight hard. “I prayed a lot about this and came to the conclusion that I’m living to live, not living to die. I knew I was in the right hands with Dr. Shaffer. God had sent me to the right person.”
Denise immediately started treatment with two chemotherapy drugs every week, including HerceptinÒ. HerceptinÒ is used for cancer that tests positive for a protein known as human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), and in Denise’s case, metastatic breast cancer (breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body).
“I don’t know how I survived 2008 without my faith, family and friends,” said Denise, who one year later was in complete remission. “I had a sanctuary full of people that, one by one, put their hand on me and prayed for healing. It gave me the strength I needed.”
Today, Denise continues her maintenance chemotherapy regimen. “Even though Dr. Shaffer answered my question of how long with ‘forever,’ it’s OK with me. When I go to NGOC, it’s like going home once every three weeks.”
Denise says the infusion room at NGOC’s Marietta Cancer Center is the most upbeat place she’s ever been. “Even though the room is dedicated to killing cancer, it’s always a party hosted by wonderful nurses.” It’s also a sacred place where her fellow cancer veterans can share their stories with others.
“When you have cancer, you tend to value things much more. It sharpened my focus and brought me closer to God and I’m thankful for that. My mom, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, told me that she gets more strength from me since I’ve been through the fight. It’s a privilege to give my mom and other people hope.”
When Denise moves her handbells upward and swings them in an elliptical movement, the clapper strikes the casting of the bell. It enables an otherwise mute bell to deliver the clear, beautiful tone it was created to share. The encouragement and blessing Denise is delivering to others is her “joyful noise.”
She knows life is short and, eventually, the bells toll for all of us.