Facing cancer once in a lifetime would be tough enough, but Burlington County resident Susan (now 55 years old), had seven cancer diagnoses within 12 years. Not an easy feat, but she handled each discovery with an astonishingly positive spirit. Susan shares her personal encounters to empower others to take control of their health and to focus on life beyond cancer.
On September 11, 2001, “as the world was forever changed,” Susan’s life was personally jolted when her doctor first informed her that she had cancer. With little history of cancer in her family, and not “fitting the profile for a cancer diagnosis,” Susan was at first in disbelief. She had just, one year prior, married her second husband Rob. “I felt really bad for him. Here we were starting a new life together, he taking the role of husband and stepfather, and boom—I get cancer.” The horrible news was compounded when she learned that she had both ovarian (stage IIIC) and uterine (stage IB) cancer. After getting over the initial shock, Susan tackled the dual diagnoses with a fierce determination to make a full recovery.
Following surgery, Susan underwent chemotherapy for six months. She was employed full-time, and took off from work only on her toughest days. She remained upbeat and welcomed a strong support system consisting of her husband, two sons and daughters-in-law, her brother, friends, and employers. At the time her mother was still alive and, despite her own failing health, she was always there to provide back rubs and conversation that lifted Susan’s spirits until she passed on September 11, in 2003. During her treatments, Susan reflected back to her father, who survived throat cancer early in his life only to succumb to stomach cancer at age 59. She distinctly remembers him saying, “I am not going to let this control me. I am going to stay in control.” Susan lives by her father’s mantra and takes full control of her life; dealing with each setback while maintaining a wondrous sense of humor.
Luckily, Susan has not had a recurrence of ovarian or uterine cancer. She attributes her successful treatment to proactively getting diagnosed when the cancers were curable. Susan had always received routine checkups, so when she experienced some warning signs during 2001, she convinced her physician to investigate the cause. She was not comfortable “waiting it out,” and she was relentless in being vocal about her abnormal symptoms. “This terrible disease can hit anyone at any given time,” she says, “and it is important to know your body.”
After beating ovarian and uterine cancer, Susan resumed some normalcy in her life. However, over the course of several years, she discovered some irregularities on her skin and was eventually diagnosed with multiple skin cancers—one basal cell cancer, two sites of squamous cell carcinoma, and one malignant melanoma. Luckily, her skin cancers were treated successfully with surgical removal thanks to early detection.
In February 2012, Susan began experiencing urinary tract symptoms. She sought medical advice immediately and was diagnosed with yet another cancer, this time affecting her bladder. Susan had a series of six Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) treatments, a form of immunotherapy, installed in her bladder. She is now cancer-free and is committed to a scrupulous follow-up regimen to watch for any recurrence.
How has Susan processed so many cancer diagnoses? Naturally, she often wondered, “Why me?” But a good friend reminded her, “Maybe it is not your lesson to learn.” Despite the hardships of cancer, Susan considers herself blessed to have had so much encouragement from loved ones and friends, as well as strangers, which has given her immense strength. She also credits wonderful doctors and nurses for their ongoing support and care. “I like to think that I am the biggest part of my support system. I truly believe that a positive attitude has helped me get through; that a hopeful attitude has made it easier on me and on the people I love,” she says.
Susan advises others to arm themselves with questions and pursue any worrisome symptom, no matter how trivial, with their physician. “It is your body,” she stresses. Susan also emphasizes the importance of follow-up visits after a cancer cure. “Schedule your appointments and keep them,” she says. “Carving out time from a busy schedule is a small price to pay for continuing good health,” she adds.
If you get the unfortunate diagnosis of cancer, Susan advises that you should not let the disease take away from the person that you are. “You will be changed by this journey, this illness, the cure and the road back to health,” she says. “Mentally, it [cancer] is a challenge because when you do not feel like yourself it is hard to do what you are used to doing. Things I used to do with ease seemed almost impossible some days. Physically, there were scary and rough moments—especially through surgery and chemotherapy.”
“There will be days that you won’t even feel like getting out of bed, and you need to know that this is okay. Give in and rest,” she advises. “Also, you should not feel guilty that you need help, or be afraid to hope, scream, cry, or laugh. And by all means, if you learn something through the journey, share it with others because your experience might help someone cope better, too.”
Tackling seven cancers in 12 years has definitely been challenging, both physically and emotionally, but Susan realizes that some people never get a second chance in life. Susan’s courage and determination have helped her face cancer head-on. “Be ready to fight, each and every day. Try to travel through your life as if
you have some control. This will make your journey much more tolerable; it does mine.”
This positive thinking is how Susan approaches her life, which is truly a gift, each and every day.
What an inspirational cancer survivor; what an empowering woman! As seen in Camden County Woman and Burlington County Woman