Five Years & Counting … Courtney’s Story
It was five years ago during a routine annual checkup that the lump was discovered. At age 29, Courtney Akel found it hard to believe it could be breast cancer.
Stage 3, triple-positive, she began an aggressive treatment schedule that would sap her energy, and leave a young woman in the prime of her life in need of the most basic types of support.
Five years later, her hair has grown back beautifully and she has a glow about her. It’s the glow of health and a determination to live life every day to the fullest, with joy.
“I’m approaching my five years which is a really exciting time for a cancer survivor. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the woods, but you are close. Your chance of surviving is significantly higher after five years than it is from 0-5 years,” said Courtney, whose treatment included six rounds of chemo, 12 rounds of radiation and three surgeries, all within a year.
“I had no cancer in my family and I was really caught off guard,” she said. “I did not go to the doctor immediately after finding a lump on my breast because I did not think it could happen to me. I highly encourage people, early detection is key. If you find a lump, get it checked out. I found mine going to my annual OBGYN appointment. You fight for your life for a year and then spend the next couple of years recovering. At the five year mark, I’m starting to get my energy back, but I look at life at lot differently. You gain a lot of perspective on what’s important to you, and you learn to balance, whatever that means for your health. You have to put yourself number one.”
Part of her newfound joy included indulging her inner diva with a photoshoot staged by Alina Perry-Smith, owner of Images by Alina. Since getting to know each other after meeting at a Boss Ladies event over a year ago, the two women have bonded as kindred ‘pink sisters’.
“We have a really great friendship and we’re lucky to come together today and celebrate this big day with me. It’s really special and I’m super thankful,” said Courtney.
Knowing all too well the challenges breast cancer survivors face, Alina’s own story is harrowing. Surviving an 18-hour surgery to remove the invasive disease, two bouts of MRSA, and multiple failed attempts at reconstructive surgery, the former teacher is making it her mission to live life to fullest as a 9-year breast cancer survivor.
With a clear understanding of just how important the five year milestone is not just physically, but mentally, Alina made it a point to do the photoshoot for Courtney. Serving as her personal glam squad, a few friends from the ‘Amp Team’, made up of Alina’s sister and makeup artist Ana Reyes-Ouzts, and hairdresser Rachelle Paulk, transformed Courtney from a hardworking sales representative to full beauty queen for the photoshoot on Tuesday.
“I’m so blessed to be here,” said Rachelle, adding a crown braid and beach waves to Courtney’s hair.
“I was at the event when they shared their breast cancer stories, bawling like a baby. I had no idea Courtney had it. I knew about Alina. They’re amazing warriors and beautiful women. Boss Ladies, I love you guys.”
Rachelle offers gentle counseling when working with cancer survivors in the salon.
“I do let them know it’s not going to be the same when it grows back and I do suggest for them to get some scarves, wigs and just be proud of who they are,” she said.
As a professional photographer, Alina went all out designing the pink, sparkly set for the shoot.
“We’ve been talking about this since we met,” said Alina. “Every five years that you have an anniversary, statistically your survival rate is higher. For Courtney to hit five years is a huge deal, so when we met, I said to her, when you hit your five years we’re going to do a photo shoot and she said ‘ok’ in her Courtney way, so we put it in the calendar. Every woman should celebrate this. It’s a new birthday.”
Fellow Boss Lady Becca Johnson, owner of Becca’s Sweet Tooth, designed two special cakes as part of the fun to celebrate the anniversary.
“She (Courtney) just messaged me a couple weeks ago and asked if I could make a couple small boob cakes. After a good chuckle, I said sure,” shared Johnson.
While it is all glitz and glamour as Courtney approached her official five year date on June 22nd, it’s a stark reminder that not every person diagnosed with breast cancer survives to mark the milestone. Courtney credits a strong support system and action with her diagnosis for helping to save her life.
“My family was super supportive of me and made sure I didn’t fight alone,” shared Courtney.
Among the shoulders she had to lean on was her husband, then boyfriend, Jakim Hartford. Through thick and thin, he stood by her and now the two were happily married in January 2022.
“We have been together seven years and it was really amazing. He stuck it out,” she said appreciatively.
“It was awesome. Jakim, through baldness, couldn’t make myself food, he took me to doctor’s appointments, he was really there for me, and did it with love.”
Going from a fast-tracked corporate career to working in the family business at Carpet One, Courtney has found not only a new on life, but a passion for connecting with people through her job.
“It totally resets your priorities,” said Courtney.
“Now I work in flooring and I work with people every day, and I love it. I don’t sit behind a computer anymore and I’m actually helping people every single day and it brings me a lot of job, compared to trying to get up the corporate ladder and be miserable.”
As for now she’s taking it, and appreciating it, one day at a time, and reminding women of all ages, to get screened.
“Ask for help. A lot of the time that was a really hard thing for me to do, to admit that I needed help,” she said. “Just making sure that you put yourself over your ego and ask for help and admit when you’re feeling weak by being honest with the people around you so they can help you.”
Days In Paris … Alina’s Story
“I was diagnosed in 2013, and like Courtney, there’s no family history. It was just random. I think it was a long road because they found it in multiple quadrants of my breasts and so they told me I needed a double mastectomy, which was a really hard thing because that’s part of who you are,” said the career educator and curriculum specialist, just 47 years old when diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
“It was a very big shock. When I woke up after an 18 hour surgery, I was told they found it in my lymph nodes, which they hadn’t found when they were probing before, so I woke up to find out I needed chemo and radiation, as well.”
It was a long road to recovery, and Alina faced unforeseen challenges along the way. Through the support of her older sister Ana Reyes-Ouzts, Alina found her strength and the pair developed a deeper kinship.
“I couldn’t recuperate from this massive surgery that I had, so I ended up doing chemo and getting very ill. While doing chemo, I had six rounds plus then another eight rounds, so I had two different types of chemo,” shared Alina, so ill during the treatments they would have to pause to let her recover.
To keep her spirits ups, the sisters, known as the Boss Ladies’ founders now, brought their signature can do attitude to the treatments, recalled Alina.
“My thought process was, a lot of times I wore a Parisian beret and I would tell people I was going to Paris for the day. And so, we would bring all fun stuff, and we would have chemo and my sister and I would walk around and speak to all the women that were there, some of them were sitting there by themselves, believe it or not and so we would have conversations while I was doing my treatments, to make sure that other women felt supported as well,” she said.
“It was a hard road. I ended up getting MRSA twice, so I wore, what I called the MRSA Purse for six months, and couldn’t take a shower for six months, I had a nurse that came in. Then I had to have multiple reconstructive surgeries, so by the time I was done, I’d probably had 8 surgeries in total because my breasts kept dying from the MRSA. The last surgery that I had was 9 hours to try to finally do a reconstruction one more time and that was not really successful either because it died from MRSA.”
Through the entire ordeal, Alina continued to function as an educator and mother of two children, Dylan just 10 years old and Carissa, 16 at the time. Beloved by co-workers and friends, they rallied to help ensure every need was met.
“Family is critical and support systems are critical. I had family that would come, my mother-in-law, my parents, would come stay with me. My sister would drive me to chemo. Somebody came with me, and all of my friends and co-workers made sure that I shuffled children to activities. People would drive them to their activities and support me with meal trains,” said Alina.
“I think that’s one of the things Courtney and I talked about the most was if you know someone who has cancer, and it’s a mom, wife, with kids, support them through works. You don’t need to give them money – I mean it would be beneficial, but helping them by supporting them though a meal or making sure if they need to be driven to chemo, I know now it’s very difficult because you can’t stay there anymore, but even if you have to drive them and wait in the car, you can’t drive home after chemo. It’s not conducive. You’re not feeling well enough to do that.”
“I was always (A) grateful that my job allowed me to work through it, and (B) that my co-workers actually donated enough days that I didn’t take one day without pay,” said Alina. “Not one. And I was out for three and a half months the first time. And then, as I was going through MRSA and radiation, I would work three and a half days and take off a day and a half.”
Alina worked to maintain a sense of normalcy in her professional life, down to rotating between two wigs. Students would remark or compliment on the curriculum specialist’s hairstyles.
“I love your hair cut, or you changed your hair today, and I would just say yes,” she said, looking back with a wistful humor on the situation.
“The good thing is cancer survival rate is so high now. Even now they’ve got new techniques in this past year that make it so much easier and less invasive for women, that it’s a lot better. It’s a lot better but it’s still hard. And it’s an image issue too. You have to think, women that struggle with breast cancer, it’s an image issue. It’s part of who you are.”
Alina has found her new calling in life through professional photography and appreciates the joy it is bringing into her life.
“That’s why I went into photography. I get to celebrate with people. When do you take pictures? Engagements, weddings, babies, survivors, all fun and I get to be a part of that and celebrate with people. I make sure that I’m grateful, because they chose me to take their pictures. They didn’t have to, so I feel like I was part of that celebrations. And so it brings me happiness to bring them happiness.”
Outside, Looking In … Ana’s Story
“It takes living it, to understand it,” said Ana Reyes-Ouzts, watching her sister Alina prepare the photo shoot for Courtney’s 5-year milestone, and recalling what the pair experienced during Alina’s journey.
“I get super emotional because I was not a nurse type. I was very corporate and very involved in a business that took a lot of energy from me, but I was always an energy giver, not an energy taker, so when I found out about my sister, it really threw me for a loop because I wasn’t ready,” she said.
The experience of Alina’s journey was a wake-up call for Ana, one that changed her own life.
“I made decisions in the past that, I was never going to do things that I didn’t want to do. My energy was going to be with things that I want, with people that I want and to do good,” she said.
“I changed careers after that, it really threw me a whole different loop. I was in a very intense business and I decided that wasn’t good for me. I decided I wanted to spend more time with things that I loved to do. For me, I learned I could do the nurse thing. It wasn’t what I was used to doing, not in my DNA, but I did it, and I was there for her, and it was super hard, but there was a reason for it.”
Softening her heart, Ana spends much of her time encouraging other women and supporting their efforts to be their best selves, live their best lives, through the Boss Ladies, and her philanthropic works.
“I was able to give back in so many different areas of my life and I know that God puts it in your way for a reason. Learning that Courtney had been through the same thing, it is a sisterhood. Once you’ve been in it with a family member, you’re part of it. You’re part of that whole equation,” she said.
“Every time I see somebody that has had breast cancer or is going through it, I know what that feels like.”
Putting her talents for beauty consulting and life coaching to work for others, Ana found her own calling during Alina’s health challenges.
“Not that I physically know, but I went with Alina to get her wigs. I was there to help the other women do their makeup when their going through it. That was like my thing. My thing is makeup, and so now I understood that I wanted to be part of that. I would go back to that place, they called me back a bunch of times to go and do their makeup, so there are reasons for what happened that opened so many other doors,” she shared.
“I was able to be part of a huge situation with Mary Kay. They brought me back because I was giving towards the foundation and we would always do a lot with breast cancer, so, so many doors opened up by things that happened to my sister.”
Most importantly, the bond between Ana and Alina grew, and now the two are inseparable.
“We became closer, because I’m the oldest, and we weren’t as close then,” she shared.
Tucking her feet under her as Alina adjusted the lights in the studio and Courtney glided into position, Ana reflected on the power of sisterhood, women supporting each other and a shared sense of peace.
“I’m grateful Courtney allowed me to be part of the makeup, and of course we love the ‘A Team’ as we call it, so we’re excited for the future.”