Community rallies in support of young woman battling cancer
Last updated 6/3/2022 at 5:59pm
Anyone that ever spent time around Romeoville High School graduate Abby Smith knows that no matter if she was on the basketball court or the softball field, she was always as positive as she was relentless her pursuit of a victory for her teammates.
A few things have changed over the years -her last name as changed to Talley, her battle is now in the game of life and her No. 1 teammate is only eight months old.
Her attitude, energy and determination, however, are still the same.
Roughly a month ago, the 26-year-old was newly married, raising a beautiful baby girl named Leia, was a full-time substitute teacher at her alma mater and was an assistant coach for the Spartans girls basketball team.
Then, her life was flipped upside down when she was diagnosed with cancer.
"After I had my beautiful baby girl, I went to get checked and the doctor suggested that I go to see someone to make sure it wasn't serious and when I went, they did all these tests and it came back that I had breast cancer," Abby said. "I did test positive for a mutation, so I probably was going to get it at some point in my lifetime, but Leia was the reason I was concerned and why I wanted to get checked and why I saw the doctor that day.
"She literally saved my life. People say all the time that she is my little angel and I say, 'yes, she is my angel.'"
Despite the life-altering news, Abby is continuing to fight with a smile on her face as much as she can.
"You have to stay positive through everything," she said. "There are two ways to approach this - you can continue to give yourself pity and be upset and miserable or you can take it head on, use the support you have and stay positive and get through it and that is what we have been doing."
After graduating from McKendree University in 2018 as a member of the women's basketball team, Abby returned to the Romeoville area.
In May of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she married Brandon Talley and in July of 2021 gave birth to Leia - the couple's first child.
"Getting married was something we were both excited for and then COVID happened, so that was a setback -but we still wanted to do it, so we made it happen," Abby said. "That was a whirlwind and when we finally got to breathe a little bit, three months later, I found out I was pregnant. We wanted kids, we just didn't want them that early, but it worked out. After I had Leia, I though maybe then I can catch my breath -and then all this happened. I was in shock when I got the news.
"This whole story is almost like a miracle. Because one thing, another thing happened and then I had signs and then found something that could have killed me. I wouldn't have got tested right away - I'm 26, it is not common. Even the doctor said that my percent to get breast cancer at this age is like one percent. It is just crazy."
After her diagnosis, Abby attacked the disease the same way she attacked the basket full on and with all she had.
"The doctors have been great. I told them that I just wanted to get it over with, so I found out the first week of January and I am already in my second dose of chemo in early February. We just attacked it head on," she said. "I had like eight tests in one week after I found out, it was crazy how fast everything was going. But, I wanted it done and I want my old life back."
That life she had before luckily was filled with family, friends and colleagues that all have risen to the occasion to support her in this fight.
"I have the biggest support system, best family and husband," she said. "I have a lot of people that have my back right now.
"They say, in sickness and health, well, he really got to learn that right away. When you think of that stuff, you think about when you are older and the kids are able to take care of themselves. I have an eight-month old so he is taking care of the baby and working full time, so he has ben amazing. He has ben so supportive and that is part of why I remain so positive. He has been awesome - I am blessed with him, too. I guess I have two angels."
While she is able to attack her disease head on, she said the hardest part is not being the one in control - not being the floor general that earned her the distinction of being a college athlete.
"I don't like sitting down and I don't like letting people do stuff for me, but right now, everyone wants to help and I appreciate it. It is a new role that I have to take. I have to sit back and let people help me and it's hard," Abby said. "I've always had help, but it is hard when I don't get to give back as much - it is hard to let people help. It is hard to ask for help, too, but throughout these weeks, I have needed it. Without family and friends, this would be a lot harder.
"I went from subbing and coaching and raising a little one to just fighting this head on with the little one by my side."
One of the places she has had an outpouring of support has been from the basketball community at Romeoville High School and throughout the Southwest Prairie Conference.
An original idea of Spartan head coach Devin Bates turned into a rally of support from all the teams in the league.
"When Devin approached me about doing the pink game at RHS, I said I would love it and my family would love to come out and support," Abby said. "Everyone wants to do something these games were a way for all these coaches to do something for me and I appreciate it. I was blown away. At first it was just RHS, but then the whole conference wanted to do it and that was just amazing. I know a lot of the coaches are still there from when I played, but I was just a player then. It has been awesome to see."
Bates said it did not take long for the conference to get involved.
"(After she stepped away) our first home game was against Plainfield North and Michaela Reedy is a new coach there, a young lady that knew Abby through a friend, and before the game, Michaela and I had a conversation and she said she wanted to do more," Bates said. "I told her I was creating the pink shirts and she wanted to do something - and her AD, Ron Lear, is the commissioner of the conference and he was at the game and after the game, Michaela and Ron talked and the next day, Ron Lear sent an email to all the coaches and athletic directors in the conference and let them know what was going on and from there, it really took off.
"All the coaches reached out to me via email or text and told me what they were going to do -teams wore pink and had 50/50 raffles and gave her baskets. Plainfield Central went to the IHSA and the referees and asked if during the game with Romeoville if they could wear pink accessories even though it doesn't match the jerseys and they got the approval. Every time we have been on the road the second half of the season, every team has done something."
Bates said the outpouring of support has been more than he could have imagined.
"It is really amazing. It speaks volumes to not only what she means to basketball around the area, but the impact she has on the other coaches and the teams in the conference," he said. "Some of those coaches have been around, some of them haven't, but the schools understand who she is and that shows what she means still to this day."
Basketball in the area also means a lot to Abby, which is why giving up her spot on the bench during this season has been one of the hardest parts of the battle this far.
"I coached for a little bit before treatment started and the week before treatment started, I told the girls that I didn't know if I could be as energetic and be able to be there for practices and games as much as I needed, so I made the decision to step back. Me and my mom have gone to a few games in the stands," Abby said. "Devin has been great and very understanding. It was a decision I made because I felt that if I couldn't give 100 percent to the girls, I didn't think it was fair to them.
"The girls are amazing and they understand and couple of them reach out. That was one of the most difficult things, because I love basketball season. They have been so supportive and they are in high school, they don't have to do all this, but they have and they have wanted to. It is really nice to see."
Abby started off her coaching career under Julio Carrasco, her former coach at Romeoville, but remained on after he stepped away -much to the pleasure of Bates.
"It meant a lot," Bates said, "I coached with Julio for 11 years. I started with the younger kids when Abby was on the upper level and the one thing I appreciated about her was not only her love for the game, but she worked so incredibly hard. That stuck with me.
"To be able to have her as someone that made her name at Romeoville High School and someone that the girls look up to. She not only cares about the school, but the community and the kids. These young ladies look up to her so much and she gives them such a strength and confidence -and she doesn't even need to say anything - she just walks in the room and things change. Her presence over the last couple years has been awesome."
The game plan Abby has to beat cancer is the same type she had as a player and coach - aggressive, resilient and in-your-face-and she wasted no time getting started.
"I have 20 weeks of chemo and I have a countdown -I am 12.5 percent done with chemo. Then I have surgery," she said. "I am having a double mastectomy, so hopefully this never comes back to haunt me. Then, I have radiation and I will have some medications I have to take throughout the years."
Abby said the decision for the surgery is one she made with her husband for her health and her future.
"The doctors aren't going to tell you what to do with your body, but they are looking for a cure so I don't have to come back," she said. "They recommended it, but me and my husband were already talking about it. Since I have the mutation, it is common for ovarian cancer and skin cancer, so I have to be screened for all that.
"The doctors are being so proactive, but they won't give me a whole lifelong plan, because who knows where medicine will ne in 10 or 15 years."
Not only will Abby continue to be screened for cancers throughout her life, but, now, so will her siblings - Skylar, Noah and Carter -will all now be ahead of the disease.
"Leia didn't only save my life, she saved all my siblings lives because now that I know I have the BRCA2 gene, my siblings have to get tested and can be proactive for them. So, they can thank me because I am taking the hardship for them," Abby said. "It even goes as far as when we find out which parent it came from, we will go to aunts and uncles and cousins, so, if we can catch this, hopefully they are not in this place.
"I will beat this and I can help my family along the way."
Her reach goes further, as Abby's fight is bringing awareness to the forefront of the conversation for all the young female athletes in Romeoville, the SPC and across the state.
"She has always been a strong girl and she will fight through this. Her positive attitude impacts everyone. She still cares about everyone else," Carrasco said. "It is great to be part of her life after I coached her. I was the son of a buck that yelled at her and coached her and then she came back and coached with me and seeing the young lady she grew up to be is awesome.
"A 26-year-old young lady should not have to go through this, but if by chance this saves other young ladies, then that is a positive and she is such a strong person, I can't wait to see how she impacts other girls is this world.
That is where you see how much impact you have had in this life, when all these people are stepping up for her. I treated her like my own daughter. I want the people around her to support her and they really are."
Bates knows that Abby will bring the same fight to beating cancer that she brought to beating the opponents of the Spartans.
"Whether you are a believer or not, this is God's plan and he picked the right person to bring awareness. He picked the strongest warrior to go through this and touch these young lives and bring awareness to these young girls," Bates said. "She is determined, but the positive energy and positive vibe that she brings to difficult situations -it gives me chills. As an athlete, she was calm on the floor all the time and she brings that same calmness, that same mentality and same fight -that inner strength and that positive attitude she has with this whole thing is amazing.
"There is no doubt in my mind that she is one of the strongest people I know and she will beat this."