Raquel Smith: Breast cancer awareness campaigner finds appeal after personal triumph

Raquel Smith never imagined becoming an advocate for breast cancer education and awareness. It was Smith’s breast cancer diagnosis that prompted her to help other women.

“God gave me a vision,” she said, seated at a small table as sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling window of the Pink Topps Resource and Wellness Center. “It all started when I was walking my walk and wanted to make a difference. I feel like this is my mission on Earth.

Pink Topps is a breast cancer advocacy organization founded by Smith that focuses on recycling plastic, which is given to recycling centers in exchange for donations to the Bessemer-based nonprofit. Through Pink Topps, Smith promotes early detection, support during treatment and improved self-esteem for breast cancer patients and survivors, while raising awareness of the ways the disease affects young adults.

Smith was 27 when her doctor told her she had breast cancer.

A photograph of Raquel Smith hangs in the atrium of the O’Neal Cancer Center as part of Project Alabama, a collection of images documenting moments in the lives of breast cancer survivors across Alabama. (contributed)

“I was incredulous,” she recalls. “I found out I had breast cancer even before I had a mammogram. When I started chemotherapy, I was the youngest.

When she was diagnosed, Smith was younger than the age recommended by the American Cancer Society (ACS) to begin screening for breast cancer. According to ACS, women 40 to 44 years old should be able to start having annual mammograms. Women aged 45 to 54 who are at average risk of breast cancer are advised to get tested annually. Women 55 and over should be screened every two years or have the option of continuing to be screened every year.

Smith’s survival story led to a mission to educate young women about breast cancer and empower them throughout their cancer journey. She likens the diagnosis, treatment and recovery of breast cancer to a long, multi-phased walk to achieve the ultimate goal.

“I wanted to do something to help other women,” Smith said. “I want to be a catalyst to help them meet their needs along this walk. My biggest goal is to get them back to their original selves.

In 2014, Pink Topps was born. Smith started with a plastic bottle recycling program in Birmingham city center to help women pay for their mammograms. At the time, the cost of a mammogram was equivalent to recycling 1,200 pounds of plastic.

Four years later, Smith moved Pink Topps to Bessemer, where she had more space for a resource center. Smith said Bessemer was the perfect place for Pink Topps as she sought to reach more women.

“Bessemer is an under-represented community that has a lot of growth potential within it,” said Smith.

During her cancer treatment and subsequent work with Pink Topps, Smith drew inspiration from Silvia Gisiger-Camata, Program Manager for Prevention and Guidance of Care in the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. Prior to joining the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, Gisiger-Camata led the Young Breast Cancer Survivorship Network and Survive AL initiatives in the UAB School of Nursing.

Smith’s association with UAB’s O’Neal Cancer Center and the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement has a long history. His photograph is hung in the atrium of the Cancer Center as part of The Alabama project, a collection of images documenting moments in the lives of breast cancer survivors across Alabama.

“She was actually one of the first people I came into contact with when I had breast cancer,” Smith said of Gisiger-Camata. “She has been such a support for me. We have connected on so many levels.

During her treatment for breast cancer, Smith discovered another surprise. She was pregnant. Despite the devastation cancer was taking on her body, Smith survived the high-risk pregnancy and gave birth to a son in 2012.

“Impossible is possible with God,” she said. “This is definitely the quote I live by. I am a walking testimony to help other women.

Smith has since taken on various other assignments with the O’Neal Cancer Center, the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, and the UAB as a whole.

In addition to her efforts to improve breast cancer awareness and support, Smith recently worked with the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, the Cancer Center Research program on cancer control and population sciences, and Program Co-Director, Dr. Laura Rogers, in an initiative to find out how increasing physical activity improves the health and well-being of cancer survivors. Since the start of the pandemic, Smith has also helped organize vaccination opportunities at UAB.

“Once you start you can’t stop because there are so many people out there who need help,” Smith said.

This story originally took place in the October 2021 problem of Community connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at UAB’s O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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