Music industry executive Jennie Smythe recalls "going emotionally numb” after her diagnosis
Jennie Smythe had no idea her life was about to change when she walked into a routine mammogram appointment in November 2018.
The CEO of Girlilla Marketing in Nashville didn’t think twice about the procedure at the Vanderbilt Breast Center — until she was asked to come back a day later for a biopsy.
“I remember being in the waiting room and a sign on the wall said that 1 of 8 women would develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime,” Smythe, now 42, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “There were 30 people in that room. I just never thought I would be one of them.”
In fact, she would end up joining the more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
“Getting that mammogram saved my life,” says Smythe, who currently serves as an active member of the Country Music Association, CMA Foundation and Music Health Alliance. “Imagine if I didn’t get that mammogram? I would have never felt the mass. What if I had waited another year? The situation could be very different.”
A Colorado native, Smythe spent much of her Denver childhood riding her bike among the backdrop of nature and beauty. “I was a dreamer,” she recalls.
That same spirit eventually helped launch her music career at companies like Elektra Entertainment, Disney’s Hollywood Records and YAHOO! Music. She moved to Nashville to work for Warner Bros. Records and Clear Channel before launching Girlilla Marketing in 2008 to provide digital marketing services for artists such as Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack and Rascal Flatts.
She was enjoying the tenth anniversary of her company’s success the same year she got the mammogram — and had no plans to slow down. So when she received the call the next day saying doctors had “seen something” and she needed to come back, she didn’t think much of it.
“I really felt like it was just probably cysts or something,” she remembers.
But it wasn’t.
Doctors had found a mass of 6 millimeters in her right breast.
“You hear the word cancer and you don’t hear anything after that,” Smythe recalls. “I remember asking my doctor over the phone if I was going to die.”
After putting her young kids Daphne, now 7, and Chess, now 2, to bed and calling her husband Shannon Houchins, Smythe crumpled into her own bed. And for the first time since the life-altering call from her doctor, she cried.
“I know how it feels to drop to your knees and weep in a moment of weakness, only to be given more grace and strength than you ever imagined,” she recalls.
From that moment forward, she says, it was game on.
“My job has always been to figure stuff out, so I got a notebook and I started writing everything down,” she says. “I started opening up to a very small amount of people who essentially became my inside circle of fellow breast cancer fighters.”
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In December of 2018, Smythe underwent the first of two failed lumpectomies, and in February 2019 she began 12 rounds of chemo, ultimately deciding that a double mastectomy would give her the best shot at a life without cancer. Just a few short weeks ago, she underwent reconstruction surgery.
Smythe says her year-long battle since her HER-2+ cancer diagnosis has been one of her most grueling yet.
“The past year has taught me that I have to live in the moment,” she says. “I haven’t had the luxury of spending too much time thinking about ‘what if.’ I’ve just been trying not to die.”
“I wish I could tell you that I was brave and I was a warrior through all of this, but I can’t,” she says. “I’ve been sick and I’ve been tired and frankly, there were times that I was growing weary of being surrounded by people all of the time, naked and exposed, you know? I mean, there were times when I started going emotionally numb.”
And while she appreciates that she might be on the other side of the ordeal, Smythe still feels that normalcy is far away.
“I want to feel normal and I want to spend one minute without thinking of cancer,” she says. “There is a level of anxiety that takes up space in your brain. I mean, it’s a whole new level. You never not worry about cancer.”
But Smythe’s battle has also left her with an unexpected positive side effect. “I developed an empathy that I had never had,” Smythe says. “I look at people and their challenges in a whole new way. The empathy pours out of me.”