Pearl’s Journey: Stronger Than She Knew
“Cancer showed me that I had a strength that I didn’t know I had; I had never been tested before.” ~ Pearl Schmier
When the doctor discovered Pearl Schmier’s breast cancer 26 years ago, he made a really good catch. Pearl was a social worker in Northampton County; was raising three kids—a daughter in college, a son in high school, another daughter in middle school—was a wife; and had just gone for her routine mammogram. And there it was.
She knew exactly what to do, how to go about fixing the problem. Unlike her mother, whose life was proscribed by others’ expectations, Pearl knew the importance of moving forward at her own pace. She knew no other way. “It never entered my consciousness to do anything but forge ahead,” she says simply, her black sweater framing a turquoise, black- and white-flowered blouse.
“You know the five stages of grief, outlined by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? I went through them in about 12 minutes. I wasn’t going to deny or bargain.”
She continues succinctly. “I was 48 when I was diagnosed. I had a biopsy, and then faced the question of whether to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. But the doctor who did the biopsy gave me no direction. I called around, but I couldn’t get into see anyone locally for weeks.” Pearl’s gaze is direct. A silver chain bearing a pendant hidden behind her blouse hangs from her neck.
“And then I called an oncologist-hematologist in New York with whom I had a vague relationship. I thought I’d have to talk my way in, explain the relationship, but I got an appointment in a week. He spent three hours with me and recommended a lumpectomy.” She shifts in her seat.
Now the question arose: who would do the surgery? This doctor didn’t just want a competent surgeon; he wanted one whose work would be aesthetically pleasing. He began making phone calls until he found the one he considered an excellent surgeon.
And so, Pearl found herself in surgery in a New York City hospital on her 49th birthday as a doctor performed a lumpectomy and removed 26 lymph nodes. “The day I got the drains out, I returned to the oncologist-hematologist. He ordered eight months of chemo, with radiation sandwiched in between. Then hormone therapy—Tamoxifen. I did all of this in New York.” She deftly rearranges her clear readers perched on top of dark blond hair.
Pearl would never say cancer was fun, but there were moments of joy. She had a five-day-a-week job which she covered in four days, so she could travel to New York for chemo on Fridays. “I’d take the bus by myself, and walk at my own pace—not New York City pace—to and from the doctor’s office. I had no immediate side effects, other than being tired. But it was a Friday, and I had the weekend to recuperate. It was nice, walking alone in New York. My mother had always said being alone was being lonely. But that’s not the case, at least for me,” she muses.
“Toward the end of my chemo regimen, I found a doctor in Kingston, PA, near my family. I enjoyed going there too. I’d meet my cousin, my aunt, or my mom. They are all gone now, and it was a true blessing that I could reconnect with them during that period.” She runs a hand along her forearm, and says ruefully, “I was the cancer trailblazer in my family. No one had ever had cancer before. But three years later my aunt got breast cancer.”
On her left wrist, Pearl wears a medic-alert ID to avoid any bloodwork on that arm, as it might lead to a recurrence of the lymphedema that plagued her for 18 months. “I wore a glove and sleeve all the time. For three hours every night, I used the pump. At the time, I thought that this was worse than cancer because I could never get away from the equipment,” she says.
An unanswered question lurked about: did she even have cancer when she was treated? “At one point my oncologist said he thought that the cancer came out with the biopsy. My husband still believes the whole thing was a mistake,” she laughs, then shrugs. “I don’t know.”
A native of Exeter, PA, smack in the coal region, Pearl grew up in a large family that had settled there in 1900. Her maternal grandfather owned a grocery store and an abattoir.
“I have a picture of my grandmother who graduated from high school in 1907 with just 11 fellow graduates. Education was so important to my family. All of my siblings graduated from high school, and my brother and I went to college. The Depression put an end to college, though,” she draws a breath. “My dad’s family arrived in Pittston about 1895,” she continues, “and my grandfather became the best haberdasher in town.”
After high school, Pearl set off for Philadelphia’s Temple University—but that didn’t last long. For, at the end of the first year, she returned home and sang a suggestive ditty she’d learned while away.
“I didn’t even know what it meant, but my mom did, and thought I was becoming too worldly—and not in a good way,” she laughs. “She made me leave Temple and go to Stern College of Yeshiva University in New York. I knew one person there.
“Here’s the amazing coincidence. It was her husband, the oncologist-hematologist, I called years later when I got my breast cancer diagnosis.”
Pearl graduated from Stern, then worked in the Philadelphia Department of Public Welfare in foster care. While there, she accepted the Commonwealth’s offer to pay half the tuition for a Master of Social Work at UPenn if she’d do her field work at the department. She accepted, but left half way through to get married.
She and her husband moved to Allentown, and she began working in Lehigh County’s Children’s Bureau (now the Department of Children and Youth). Simultaneously, she raised three children, completed her Master’s degree at Marywood College, and became a child welfare worker.
Two years later, she got cancer. Pearl’s small dangling silver earrings move slightly. “My youngest, at 14, was my rock. She always knew the right thing to say—and grew up to be a social worker,” she smiles with pride.
Pearl again shifted her career focus, this time to children’s mental health. When the job changed, she stopped working. She hesitates for a moment, then begins again: “For six months, I wasn’t sure what to do.”
For work had been integral to her; it prevented cancer from becoming the centerpiece of her life, especially when working with really tough kids and families. She wasn’t going to let that part of her life—the job part—be over.
Pearl taps her fingertips together. “As I was thinking about what to do, I remembered seeing a flyer from CSC, and decided to take a yoga class. When I first came, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Nothing’s bothering me.’ But then I realized it’s the one place where I can be all of me. I don’t have to hide anything as I did at work or at home where my family got tired of listening to me.
“That’s the most important part of this place: it’s safe here. Even 26 years after my diagnosis, that’s important. I told Jen Sinclair, the program director, that I wanted to volunteer. For me, this place is a ‘we,’ not an ‘it,’ and I consider this place part of me.”
Pearl began to volunteer in 2011 on the Newcomers Orientation staff. The right combination: a social worker who had had cancer, a woman who tells her story with positivity and builds on the good that lies buried within any hardship.
She stands, her peach-colored sneakers just peeping out beneath her black pants. “Cancer showed me that I had a strength that I didn’t know I had; I had never been tested before.”
Pearl has been on the Newcomers Orientation volunteer staff for eight years, and is an Ambassador of Hope.