From cancer treatments to college courses to serving her country, a Columbia College-Los Alamitos professor lives with grace and focus.
By Whitney Dreier
“The best weapon you have is your mind” is the best advice Heather Smith has ever received. But the Columbia College Los-Alamitos instructor did not hear that statement from a fellow academic, or even from a colleague in the California National Guard. She heard it from her surgeon.
In 2009, Smith, then 39, was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer – which came with an 18-month life expectancy. “The prognosis was bleak; the tumors were very aggressive,” she remembers. “I had nearly six months of chemotherapy and then a double mastectomy.”
During treatments, Smith maintained a go-get-’em attitude, and – although she’ll never be “in remission” – she has had no evidence of disease since May 2010. “Listening to my surgeon gave me hope,” she says. “I am so thankful to have lived much past the 18-month prognosis for Stage IV survival.” Smith gets scanned every few months, a process that will continue for the rest of her life.
Since 2006, Smith has taught environmental science, human biology and biology – both in-seat and online – at Columbia College Los Alamitos. And, despite her recovery, she admits teaching is a bit different now than before her diagnosis. “The biggest challenge lately is that I don’t have the energy I once had,” she says. “So, I have to be careful to plan my schedule, exercise, eat right, stay hydrated, and rest. Balance seems to be the key.”
Smith strives to “be present” and focused at all times – not just at Columbia College but in her other professional and academic pursuits as well. “Involving students in research is such a rewarding experience; it truly changes lives, and I am committed to continue this program,” she says of a nanotechnology research program she’s involved with at the University of California-Riverside. Smith has also worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pomona College, where she taught genetics, and as a scientist at Oak Ridge National Lab. Her doctorate is in environmental toxicology; her dissertation was on DNA damage and repair in mechanism in cells.
As if teaching doesn’t keep her busy enough, Smith was recently commissioned as a captain in the medial unit of the California State Military Reserve. The Salt Lake City native works with the National Guard and US Army giving pre-deployment classes in infectious disease and chemical/radiation exposure. “This work was so rewarding; we have a great unit that is tasked with helping the soldiers and citizens of California in the case of natural disaster or state emergency,” she explains. “We joke that California has four seasons: rain, fire, flood, and earthquake. We are a busy unit!”
When she does have free time, Smith enjoys traveling back to Salt Lake City to visit her parents. Her interests include surfing, running, bird watching and music. “I am a classically trained pianist, so playing piano or drums is a great way to spend time,” she says. “I had a small jazz combo that played in the LA area quite a bit – I was the drummer.”
And, perhaps above all, she strives to be a mentor to her students, peers and cancer patients. “As long as I am alive, I will do as much good as I can and try to squeeze as much joy and happiness out of life as possible,” she says. “If anyone out there is battling cancer or someone they love is, please don't hesitate to contact me. I am willing to listen and help in any way I can. As for most things in life: Together we are stronger!”