Updated: Sunday, April 16, 2017, 3:01 AM
Every time Traci Smith walked into chemotherapy at Lankenau Medical Center in 2013, she made sure she was looking her best. When Smith arrived, patients, nurses, and doctors complimented her, telling her she didn’t look sick, which, given that she had lost all her hair, fingernails, and appetite, felt good.
“It was important to me,” says Smith, 48, who cofounded the nonprofit Traci’s B.I.O. (Beautiful Inside and Out) with business partner Phyllis Young in 2014. The organization works to support, educate, and pamper African American women with breast cancer.
“Part of what I saw in chemo and in conversation with some of the other ladies was that they gave up their will to live," she said. "I was going to fight it with everything I had. If I had to put on a wig to feel better, I would. If it took a lipstick, that was fine too. I wanted to lend them my energy.”
After the chemotherapy, Smith had 17 lymph nodes removed under her left arm. Over the next year and a half, when the cancer spread from under her arm to her left breast, she underwent a mastectomy, radiation, elective surgery to remove her right breast, and reconstructive surgery.
Throughout, Smith, a single mother with a teenage daughter, worked hard to bring a sense of normalcy to what she called an abnormal situation. “I wanted to fight cancer seamlessly, because my 14-year-old daughter was watching me. Part of my will to look normal was to let my teenaged daughter know Mommy’s OK.”
While there are other organizations to help breast cancer patients, Smith wanted to concentrate on helping African American women improve their appearance. So in 2015, she gathered 10 breast cancer patients for a day of beauty.
“Cancer can take everything from you: your breasts and everything you’ve been complimented on as a woman,” Smith said. “Phyllis and I were so happy to do something to make these women, two of whom were terminal, feel beautiful.”
So far, B.I.O. has given 50 free makeovers to cancer patients.
In addition to the beauty advice, Smith campaigns for early attention to breast cancer symptoms and awareness of breast-reconstruction surgery, both especially critical for African American women. Black women are more likely than others to be diagnosed at later stages, and they have the lowest survival at each stage of diagnosis. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype that is linked to poorer survival.
“As females, we put ourselves last,” Smith said. “I should have been more in tune to my body because my mother had breast cancer. I should have had a mammogram at 40 and gotten to the doctor sooner when I noticed an achiness beneath my left arm. But I didn’t.”
Twice a month, members meet to discuss topics such as “How to Get Your Sexy Back” and handling sexuality during breast cancer treatment. On April 22, B.I.O. will join with Penn Medicine to present an educational symposium on “Restoring Breast Beauty” at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It's free, but registration is required.
“We have a stigma about plastic surgery in the community,” Smith said. “In part it's because doctors don’t always have the conversation about plastic surgery after breast removal with African American women, but also because many say we should work with the package God gave us.
"But for me, I needed to look visually like the old Traci as much as possible. When I look in the mirror 10 years from now I don’t want to be constantly reminded of having breast cancer.”
B.I.O. members have also told their stories in two books, with a new edition of The Pink Sister Chronicles due later this year.
Smith regularly visits chemo and radiation centers around the city to speak with women undergoing treatment.
“I pray with them, I hold their hands," she said. “I do whatever it takes to let them know that someone totally understands what they’re going through.”
Yakima Deloatch, 38, who works in the fashion industry and lives in northern New Jersey, was diagnosed in April 2012 with triple negative breast cancer and opted to have a double mastectomy at 31. For Deloatch, the sisterhood of B.I.O. and the opportunity to share her story in their book has proven extremely powerful.
“The biggest strength is sisterhood,” Deloatch said. “Because they genuinely care about the women that they are reaching out to. Once you have that sisterhood, that connection, once you solidify that passion for helping one another, everything falls into place.”
Smith agreed that support is the group's greatest strength.
“What started out as a beautification organization now works to empower those who are fighting cancer to live their best new life," she said. "We want to help you spiritually, physically, and mentally to fight cancer.”
Register for the “Restoring Breast Beauty” event at: https://www.pennmedicine.org/cancer/about/events/2017/april/restoring-breast-beauty.