How I’m Giving Back After Having Cancer Twice

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1990s. On Mother’s Day 1996, my three daughters and I first participated in the Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure,”in her honor. My mom would live four months after that annual event, one more month after she decided to forego further chemotherapy treatment.

The race became a lovely Mother’s Day tradition for us and a reunion of sorts. Year after year, we saw friends who, like us, had a personal interest in this charity. During these events, the thousands of racers (runners and walkers) are encouraged to fill out pink sheets of paper to celebrate or memorialize people they’d known who had or still have breast cancer. On our pink sheets, we honored more and different women, friends and family members, eventually including my oldest daughter.

It had been five years since my mother had lost her battle with Breast Cancer when, in the spring of 2001, I had my yearly, routine mammogram. Although I had recently discovered that I didn’t have the BRCA gene mutation, part of me still believed that our family cancer was genetic. My maternal grandmother had died of breast cancer 16 years before my mom.

The report generated on my mammogram, and then on an ultrasound was “possible ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).” Seeing the word “carcinoma”in a medical report was terrifying that first time. A biopsy confirmed I had DCIS, early-stage breast cancer.

I met Dr. B, who would be my breast surgeon and liked her very much. After about ten minutes of discussion, it was determined that I would have a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, because of my family history. The procedure took a long time, but it was successful, and no additional cancer was found. So that was good news! But an infection in my implant extended my recovery time by six months. Bad news.

My health was 100% by May. Just in time for another special “Race for the Cure.” On Mother’s Day, 2002, I was a survivor! More good news.

Breast cancer survivors were hugely celebrated at the Susan G. Komen event. Early Sunday morning, the survivors gathered in front of our special tent, covered in pink balloons. We were all smiling and sharing words of inspiration. Initially, I felt a bit like an impostor, because of the early stage of my cancer, but within mere minutes I felt deeply honored.

The survivors walked up Flagstaff Hill toward the stage stood in rows in front. The year’s theme song began to play, and we all sang enthusiastically, many of us with tears in our eyes.

My family participated in the “Race for the Cure” 16 more Mother’s Days until the event came to an end.

Within a year of the final race, I was diagnosed with stage 3B non-small cell lung cancer. This time my cancer was not early-stage; it was life-threatening.

As a life-long non-smoker, it’s unlikely that my lung cancer would have been discovered soon enough to prevent its metastasis, had it not been for a series of tests, including a CT scan done in the emergency room of a nearby hospital. About two months before my diagnosis, I had a (probable) seizure while backing out of my driveway one morning.I briefly lost consciousness as my car drifted into my neighbor’s yard. Yes, that seizure may have saved my life. It definitely taught me the meaning of a new term, “incidental finding.”

Follow-up CT scans and biopsies revealed two malignant tumors, one in each lung. In addition to surgically removing what appeared to be the more concerning tumor, my thoracic surgeon removed the lymph nodes in that area of my chest. Three weeks later, I had the tumor in the other lung removed. By then it had been determined that the lymph nodes removed were malignant.

I struggled with chemotherapy, causing nausea and vomiting, as well as significant fatigue. However, I completed my chemo at three-week intervals, as well as one month of daily radiation therapy and a year of monthly infusions of immunotherapy. After completing my immunotherapy, I was deemed in remission on Jan. 2, 2020.

Not long after I began treatment for my lung cancer, I donated to the American Lung Association (ALA). As a result, I became a team leader for the Lung Force Walk, “Sue’s Prayer Army”!

On Walk Day I met so many great people, including other lung cancer survivors, and ALA staff; I was fortunate to be reunited with so many members of my prayer army! I was overwhelmed with joy listening to my middle daughter speak about me and the challenge that was my lung cancer.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to have the Lung Force Walk in the fall of 2020, so it was rescheduled for the spring of 2021 and has remained a spring event since then. I have begun to raise funds for this, my fifth Lung Force Walk, scheduled for April 27, 2024.

In late summer of 2023, I submitted my cancer story to CURE Today, a special cancer magazine, focusing on cancer patients, survivors and caretakers, rather than doctors and researchers, and a few days later I was offered a part-time position writing blogs for the website and magazine.

Writing for the publication has proven to be an excellent platform for me to share my experiences as a patient, survivor and support person to several individuals currently in cancer treatment; one has become a close friend. She has been a role model of faith as she has valiantly fought her stage 4 colon cancer for now, almost three years.

Never having had a close family, it has meant a lot for me to become first-cousin friends with two extended family members, as a result of our mutual cancer diagnoses.

I had used journal writing throughout my adult life to cope with family issues, then later at my oncologist’s suggestion. I drew on my journals to start my memoir, “LEARNING TO THRIVE: A Journey from Adversity to Joy and Fulfillment,” which I published in September 2023. My memoir takes the reader through the challenges of my early life, through my cancer journey and beyond, to my purpose in writing the book. I hope as many people as possible can identify with me and be inspired to use their cancer as a chance to make positive changes in their lives.

The voices and actions of survivors in connection with oncologists and researchers can only lead to a better understanding of the cancer journey for all. In giving back, I believe, we continue to receive.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

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