Susanne’s Journey: Twice-Told Tale
“I didn’t think that cancer would happen again. But the second time, it helped me get my priorities straight.” ~ Susanne Tucker
“The more time that passed after my first cancer,” says Susanne Tucker, smiling across a table, “the less I thought about it, the more convinced I was that cancer was part of my past.” She sighs. “But that’s not true for the second time. It’s like a dark cloud.”
Susanne shifts in her seat, slightly tugging the cuff of her crisply pressed light blue shirt.
It was 1985, 34 years ago, when she began to have severe stomach pain. Tests revealed a tumor in her small intestine, which was—after its removal—diagnosed as chloroma, a localized, extremely rare type of acute myeloid leukemia; the disease did not appear to be any other place in Susanne’s body. Baffled, the doctors conferred with experts in this field, and ultimately determined to treat her as if she had full-blown myelocytic leukemia.
“I spent a week in the hospital with a constant IV,” Susanne continues. “I followed this with an IV treatment, every other weekend for six months.” And then her body began to break down under the strain of the cure, destroying platelet blood cells as fast as they were being transfused into her. Her white blood cell count torpedoed. She was utterly exhausted, nauseated, covered with rashes and mouth sores, able to eat only baby food.
Her doctors stopped treatment and urged her to harvest her bone marrow in case she should need it in the future. When the first operation failed to generate sufficient marrow, she returned for a second, and successfully completed the harvest.
Despite the rapid cessation of treatment, her disease went into remission, and her treatment was officially over. For a year, Susanne saw her doctor monthly, then bi-annually, and finally yearly. After five years, she stopped her visits.
She returned to the work force. Although she had an accounting degree, she became an office manager at a start-up in Bethlehem where she stayed nine years. She was cured. All was well.
Until 2015. She’d been working at a communications company for 19 years. Her two daughters—both nurses—were now adults with their own children, and she had a happy second marriage.
“I had a lump in my breast. I’d always had yearly mammograms, but I found this on my own. I went to the doctor immediately. He did a mammogram and sent me for a biopsy.” She had cancer. Again. “It was as if someone punched me in the stomach,” she plucks at the metal strap of her watch. “I thought, ‘I had this already. I don’t know if I can go through this again.’”
Her radiologist recommended a breast surgeon, who advised a mastectomy. Susanne’s ankle-high black boot slides against the table leg. “And then my daughter, an oncology nurse, told me to see a medical oncologist. No one else had told me to do that.”
Susanne made an appointment with the very doctor who’d treated her in 1985—30 years before. He ordered a bone scan, and then she learned that the mastectomy would have been pointless: her breast cancer—stage 4—had metastasized to her pelvic area.
“How many people,” she muses, “have mastectomies when it doesn’t matter? How many people don’t get to the right doctor and don’t get the right diagnosis for any type of disease?”
Her doctor put her on a combination of drugs: Ibrance, a targeted immunotherapy pill which had only been on the market three months; Letrozole; and a monthly injection of Xgeva to strengthen her bones. Susanne’s lump disappeared but, as a result of Xgeva, she developed osteonecrosis in her jaw and lost two of her back teeth. She stopped the shots. But she continues to take the pills. Thus far, the monthly blood work monitoring her blood cells and tumor markers, and her yearly bone scans have been fine. too.
Unlike her leukemia experience which physically debilitated her, the breast cancer treatment was fairly easy. But cancer waged its psychological war.
“My husband and I went to a counselor during my treatment. She had us do an exercise: once a day, we’d look at each other and say, ‘The thing I hate about this cancer is….’ This forced us to reveal things we might not have talked about. It helped us get through the petty stuff.” She stares at a finger nail, then pulls out a nail file to file it down.
“I didn’t tell anyone I had breast cancer. Say what you will, if you know someone is fighting cancer, you treat him or her differently. My brother stopped seeing my mom, who had congestive heart failure, because he didn’t know what to say to her,” Susanne shrugs, her brown chin-length hair bobbing slightly.
She returned to work for a year, but one day, said to herself, “What am I doing? I don’t want to spend whatever time I have left in this office stressing myself out.” She smiles, “I didn’t think that cancer would happen again. But the second time, it helped me get my priorities straight. So I retired.”
Susanne focused on staying physically fit and fostering relationships with friends, shopping and traveling with her husband, and buying a Delaware beach house.
Despite these forward steps, the specter of cancer looms. “I don’t think you ever totally put cancer out of your mind. For me, breast cancer is like a dark cloud. Anytime I think about doing something in the future, I wonder if I should do it. We’ve talked about a trip to Italy, but I don’t want to end up in a hospital there.”
She glances at her light blue lunch bag with her name, Susanne, stitched across the front in red.
“We decided that we didn’t know the future, and everything could continue forever. So, I make plans, and make new friends, invite family, see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and volunteer. One day I thought that there was no reason I couldn’t give back.”
First, she volunteered as an online counselor through a life-coaching site that ultimately failed. Then her daughter sent her a link to the Cancer Support Community, which she contacted. For the past year, she’s driven 45 minutes from her Lansdale-area home to help administratively. The Cancer Support Community also steered her toward the Cancer Hope Network where she volunteers as a mentor.
“I can truly say that I appreciate every day. Life is fragile. You never know when it’s your turn. I know this is a cliché. I think it’s one for a reason,” Susanne says with vigor.
Susanne volunteers at the Cancer Support Community every week. Smiling, she says, “I am comfortable working here because I am no different from anyone else. I don’t have to tell people I have cancer. I don’t have to be guarded in what I say. Everyone gets it.”