Ryan P. Smith, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: October 3, 2003
OncoLink's Associate Editor, Ryan P. Smith, MD interviews Edna Campbell star WNBA basketball player and breast cancer survivor.
= Ryan Smith, MD, OncoLink Associate Editor
E.C. = Edna Campbell
Upon your diagnosis, what aspect of treatment frightened you the most and for what reasons?
E.C. The part about treatment that scared me the most was the chemotherapy. Just knowing that I was being injected with chemicals that are harmful to good cells as well as cancer cells.
Was your professional career a definite backseat to your health and your family, or was it always at the forefront?
E.C. It is only logical that my career would take a back seat to my health. Without my health I have no career. So my focal point was getting myself healthy, first and foremost.
How has your son and how have the two of you together dealt with the diagnosis and treatment?
E.C. My son, David, was very courageous. I know that he had his low points. I know that he feared for my life at times, but he was a trooper, and my biggest source of inspiration.
Athletes, as all of us do in some respect, feel invincible-especially at the prime of their physical conditioning, like you were-how did the diagnosis affect you from that aspect?
E.C. Cancer is definitely a wake up call to anyone who believes he/she is invincible. This experience has reinforced the fact that we are not in control.
Do you feel that your physical condition helped you through the treatments?
E.C. I believe that being in good physical condition helps us to better cope with any ailments or diseases, so I feel it was a factor in dealing with my treatment.
Do you feel that being in the public eye made it easier or more difficult for you to deal with the diagnosis and treatment?
E.C. Being in the public eye is a blessing. I have the opportunity to reach out and share my story, and inspire hope for many people. I am very pleased to be able to turn what may have seemed like not so good of a situation into a positive by generating awareness of the disease and encouraging early detection. On the flip side the fans, and the public have been tremendously supportive. The outpouring of encouragement and love has at times been overwhelming.
Surgery then radiation therapy both have actual physical detriments. How have you dealt with those caused by the treatment course?
E.C. In dealing with the surgery and treatments, I just maintained a positive outlook and surrounded myself with the people that cared about me.
What side effect of treatment affected you the most?
E.C. When I was treated for breast cancer, I experienced extreme exhaustion due to anemia, a side effect of chemotherapy treatment. Anemia was the side effect that had the greatest impact on my daily life.
One of the most common complaints with any type of cancer treatment is fatigue. This is especially true in breast cancer treatment, where the treatment course encompasses all three modalities and can last the better part of a year. Did you feel a significant amount of fatigue and how did you cope with it?
E.C. I did feel a significant amount of fatigue as a result of my chemotherapy-related anemia. Anemia can cause debilitating fatigue, which made everyday activities like spending time with my family and friends, and playing basketball, the sport I love, used up all of my energy. I talked to my doctor and she explained that anemia resulting from chemotherapy is treatable and prescribed PROCRIT (Epoetin alfa) to correct it. PROCRIT corrected my anemia by increasing my red blood cell count, which increased my energy level and helped prepare me to get back on the basketball court.
Do you think the fatigue you felt was made better by your conditioning, or even worse because you are such an attuned athlete?
E.C. The symptoms of chemotherapy-induced anemia are not things that get worse or better depending upon physical conditions. In fact, 71% of all chemotherapy patients have some level of anemia. But I was able to apply many of the mental skills I have as a professional athlete to my treatment. On the basketball court, timing is everything and quick action can mean the difference between winning and losing - it's similar to my battle with breast cancer and chemotherapy-related anemia. Moving quickly to get diagnosed and start treatment can mean getting back to doing the things you love sooner. I wanted to live my life as I always have and didn't accept this exhaustion as something I would have to live with.
Do you think your fatigue was directly related to your anemia or were there other factors as well-stress, frequent medical appointments, radiation therapy?
E.C. I believe that my fatigue was directly related to the anemia as once I spoke to my doctors about my symptoms and she diagnosed the condition, we were able to treat it, which increased my energy levels. I strongly encourage people who suffer from cancer and are receiving chemotherapy to talk with their doctors if they are experiencing fatigue or exhaustion. These symptoms could be a sign of anemia, which can be treated with PROCRIT. To learn more about anemia and the Rebound from Anemia program, visit www.PROCRIT.com.
How long after treatment was completed did fatigue and other side effects continue to affect you?
E.C. Luckily, the fatigue and side effects disappeared shortly after I finished my treatment.
Now that treatment is completed, has ongoing fatigue hurt your everyday living and training schedule?
E.C. No. Once my doctor diagnosed and correct my anemia using PROCRIT, it stopped affecting my day-to-day life. I returned to play in the last game of the season in 2002 and scored 4 points. Not only did I start every game as a guard this season, but also had a very intense travel schedule as the team plays 18 games at home and 19 games away during the16-week regular season.
How did you have the energy to become a spokesperson for breast health awareness?
E.C. Since the league was formed in 1997, the WNBA has worked to educate its fans and the general public and has raised over $1.8 million to help fight breast cancer through the WNBA Breast Health Awareness program, which is a part of the league's WNBA Mind. Body. Spirit. initiative. As the first active player to be diagnosed with breast cancer, I view it as my responsibility to be a spokesperson for breast health awareness. Energy wasn't an issue for this important role of helping to educate other women about the importance of breast health and serving as inspiration to other cancer survivors.
What has been the most rewarding part about being a spokesperson? From the aspect of being a professional athlete? As an African-American?
E.C. The most rewarding part of being a spokesperson is connecting with fellow cancer survivors, no matter their race, age or gender, and showing them that you can beat this disease and you don't have to live with the side effects of treatment. I have has many opportunities to connect with cancer survivors through my work with Rebound from Anemia (www.reboundfromanemia.com). This October, I hope to reach even more cancer survivors through a special e-card program. I encourage everyone to visit www.Cancer.com and click on the Art of Healing logo to send a message of hope to anyone who has been affected by cancer.
The WNBA is a large supported of breast cancer awareness. Can you imagine being involved in an organization that wasn't as supportive?
E.C. I am very pleased that the league has taken on breast health awareness as its main cause.
Why was it so important to make your comeback at the end of the last season? Did you feel that you had to prove a point to yourself? Your son? Your team? Your fans? Cancer survivors everywhere?
E.C. I was fortunate to come back last season. Despite having just finished my chemo treatments, I felt strong enough to play and had started to get excited about possibly playing again. The last game of the season was our fan appreciation night. So, it was an opportunity not only to let everyone know that I was doing well, but also to thank them for their support since my diagnosis.
It has always amazed me when strong-willed people such as you have said they are actually glad they were diagnosed with cancer, went through treatment, and were able to be cured. Do you feel the same way? If so, why?
E.C. No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but for me it was an awakening. After so many years playing basketball both here and overseas, I had become very self-reliant and I didn't realize how much I missed the daily contact with my family. My outlook has changed tremendously. Dealing with this disease has given me a perspective where I've harnessed all my energy. Basketball is my career. Everything I do is focused on my family and friends now.