“I found a lump myself. I actually thought that I was too young to have breast cancer,” Tiffany Smith, 37, said.
The branch head at the South Philadelphia Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1700 S. Broad St., for three years eventually found out she had stage II breast cancer. After the diagnosis, she underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy.
“I lost my hair and [had] all those fun side effects. I looked horrible and felt horrible,” she said. “I found the Young Survival Coalition, for young survivors under 40. It was one of the most helpful things I had at the time.
“I had a fiancé and he broke up with me shortly after diagnoses.”
Part of the coalition, which Smith found online, was the fundraising event Tour de Pink, a more than 200-mile biking journey through New Jersey that takes place over three days and ends on the Shore. Though she was aware she would be undergoing chemotherapy before 2010’s event, she felt she needed to sign up.
“I took a chance and signed up for it. I realized I was going to be in chemo during part of my training, but I didn’t realize I was going to be in chemo up until the week before the ride,” Smith, whose chemo regimen was extended during the process, said.
Despite these challenges Smith was able to complete the ride and raise around $5,000. Now labeled as having no evidence of active disease, Smith is gearing up for the ’11 ride that takes place Sept. 23 to 25.
“I want to get information about the ride out there. It really helps young women who may have been diagnosed know that resources are out there,” Smith said. “There are a lot of women under 40 out there and there are other young women you can connect with. It makes a difference. When everyone next to you is getting chemo and their hair is blue — the experience is different for young women.
“I care about YSC and I want to let young women know you can get through it.”
Smith estimates last year’s ride had 250 participants, 50 of whom were survivors. There is also a shorter ride for those who can’t sign on for the multi-day event.
“There is a one-day ride that is never too late to sign up for,” Smith said. “That would be something really easy and I know there are a lot of bikers in the city and a lot of people who have been effected by breast cancer, maybe just another way.”
Hailing from the Finger Lakes area in Upstate New York, Smith attended Rochester Institute of Technology and moved to Philadelphia in 1997 after graduating to pursue a career in social work.
“I was a social worker in Philly for just a couple years. I think I had a very difficult time not letting go,” she said. “When I was a social worker, I got very depressed and burned out quickly working with kids and the heartache — the things kids have to deal with.”
Smith began a job at the University of the Arts’ library and the librarians convinced her to get a master’s at Drexel University in library science.
“I liked working in libraries. That’s what I did as an undergrad and I knew I enjoyed it. I was running their circulation desk,” Smith, who also runs the adult teen section in South Philly, said. “I love it. I didn’t necessarily know I was going to work for a public library, but once I started working in this field, it’s perfect.
“We provide resources to a wide variety of communities, whether it’s computer access or help finding jobs. There are so many new Americans [in South Philly] that don’t speak any English. And I just love [helping people].”
The Port Richmond resident first made her way to South Philadelphia when she came to work at the Fumo Family Branch, 2437 S. Broad St., in ’07.
“It was the first time I had been in South Philadelphia in a long time and, honestly, I had no idea how much it had changed,” she said. “I had probably visited five years prior and I didn’t find it to be the most diverse neighborhood.”
Her move to full-time employment in South Philadelphia coincided with her cancer treatment and she worked, bald-headed, for three years through the ordeal.
“I had to have a mastectomy in the end. It was pretty large at the time and it was growing pretty rapidly,” she said. “Immediately after [my diagnosis] I met with a surgeon. I also met with a genetic counselor because it can put you in permanent menopause and you won’t be able to have children.
“The issues are really different when you are younger. Being able to have children, losing your breasts, losing your hair or even losing your eyelashes. That was the only femininity I had left.”
Smith started with the organization’s online community, until she worked up the courage to go to the local meetings that take place at the Wellness Center in Fairmount. These decisions have been among her most important since beginning her battle and she’s not sure she would have been able to fight — nor complete many other accomplishments thus far — alone.
“I know I would never be able to do [last year’s ride] by myself. And it’s funny because it relates to breast cancer,” she said. “I’m totally excited [for this year’s ride]. I know a lot of the riders are returning and it’s nice to not have so many side effects to deal with.” SPR
To read more about Tiffany Smith and the Tour de Pink, visit www.ysctourdepink.org.
Contact the South Philly Review at firstname.lastname@example.org.