By Sym Posey
The Birmingham Times
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, Raquel Smith, a Minor High School and Tuskegee University alum never dreamed she would become an advocate for breast cancer education and awareness.
“Being so young … I never had a mammogram. I never did a self-check mammogram. I didn’t think about a mammogram because I was in my 20’s.”
Smith, now 40, is Founder/Executive Director of Pinktopps, a Bessemer-based non-profit organization founded in 2014, that advocates for breast cancer awareness with a focus on young men and women between ages 16 and 35. The group promotes early detection, support during treatment, and higher self-esteem for breast cancer patients and survivors, while bringing attention to how the disease affects younger adults.
When Smith received her diagnosis in 2011, she was younger than the age recommended by the American Cancer Society (ACS) to begin breast cancer screening. According to the ACS, women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
‘My mom and I went into the doctor’s office, and they said it was nothing, you’re to young for breast cancer and you never had a mammogram, so they did a lumpectomy. I still didn’t think I had breast cancer. “
After testing, doctors called Smith back into their office. “They said, you have a what they call triple negative breast cancer, and you are going into stage three. If we don’t get to moving within the next six months, the cancer will spread to your brain. “
Smith received a full treatment plan that started with a double mastectomy that went to her breast wall to remove the mass as quickly as possible. Afterwards, she had expanders put in, something normally used in breast reconstruction.
“I wasn’t thinking I was about to get my breast cut off. That wasn’t on my mind. I never knew what a double mastectomy was,” she said. “I never experienced that vocabulary. So, I didn’t know what to expect.”
She would then endure six months of chemotherapy and three months of radiation. As a result of the chemotherapy effecting her hormones and good cells, doctors told Smith that it would be unlikely she would have any more children. She now has three Rose,15, Robert 11, Roclyn, 2.
“When the doctor told me that I wasn’t having any more children, I said, ‘God showed me more children.’ And the doctor said, I could start early-stage menopause and that they didn’t even know when I would get my cycle back.”
In her second month of radiation Smith discovered that she was pregnant. Despite the toll the cancer had taken on her body, she survived the high-risk pregnancy and in 2012 gave birth to her middle son Rob. She would defy the odds again in 2020, she would be surprised with another pregnancy and in 2021 she gave birth to her youngest, Roclyn.
“I always say that ‘impossible is possible with God.’ That is a quote I live by. I even have it on the back of our Pinktopp t-shirts. I feel like I’ve been faced a lot of challenges because God has something shining on me so bright. I just keep pushing. My kids keep me pushing. “
Smith would still face much adversity, including a second battle with breast cancer but her journey of survival has led her on a mission to educate young people about breast cancer and empowering them through their own cancer journeys.
Founded in 2014, Pinktopps began with a plastic bottle recycling program in downtown Birmingham that helped women pay for mammograms.
“The name Pinktopps originally came from when we started the recycling. I wanted to name it something that relates to us. Our initial catalyst was water bottles and recycling. We still believe in recycling for our Earth.”
At the time, the cost of one mammogram was the equivalent of recycling 1,200 pounds of plastic. From 2014-2018 Pinktopps relied on funding from the recycling until the COVID year of 2020.
In 2018 Smith opened Pinktopps Wellness Center in downtown Bessemer. “By me being a breast cancer survivor, I wanted to do something to help women. Our wellness center is a place where people can come at the beginning of their journey to get information.”
Fast forward to today, Pinktopps is still helping the community by collaborating with other organizations.
On Saturday, Sept. 30 Pinktopps was at Birmingham’s Legion Field for the annual Sistah Strut Breast Cancer Awareness Walk. Other partnerships include Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Sisters CANcervive, and most recently One Step Automotive Group.
One Step Automotive Group has partnered with Pinktopps for their One Step’s 4th annual Drive Out Breast Cancer Campaign where One-Step donates $1 to Pinktopps throughout the month of October when supporters and survivors provide signatures at various functions around the Birmingham area. Black signatures represent supporters, gold signatures will represent those loss, and silver represents survivors.
Other collaborations include AIDS Alabama Inc. “We just recently did a grant partnership with AIDS Alabama because women 40 and under are not getting tested and the rates are rising. By us dealing with young women, we need to let women know that we have testing facilities in the Birmingham area that you can go get tested. Just because you get Breast Cancer doesn’t mean you won’t have aids. Just because you have AIDS, doesn’t mean you can’t get Breast Cancer. I’m excited about this partnership because I feel like we share something in common.”
Asked about the future for Pinktopps, Smith said, “Getting a home for survivors. I feel like we need a haven. After going through some things with survivors, I see that we need more of a shelter, where women can come during treatment in Alabama. Stay for free, bring your family, go through your treatment, and get back to life. So, when you ask what does the future hold, it’s a shelter for women.”