Mother, children's author, hotelier & triple breast cancer survivor, SYDNEY
Susanne, 63, Sydney, is a mother-of-two, an internationally published author, a hotelier and remarkably, a triple breast cancer survivor.
In her award winning children’s book, Always Jack, that carries the Cancer Council’s yellow daffodil, Susanne relays the tale of protagonist, Jack, a character inspired by her own son, who stands beside his mother when she is diagnosed with breast cancer.
For Susanne, breast cancer is an all too familiar disease. In 1991, then aged 39, Susanne was enduring a challenging divorce, raising two young children on her own, supporting her dependent mother and keeping her business afloat, when she discovered a lump in her breast. She sought prompt medical attention at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, where she underwent a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound, and a subsequent breast tissue biopsy.
After waiting for “what seemed to be forever”, Susanne’s doctors informed her she was living with grade three breast cancer.
This is her story of stocism against all odds.
“I have no family history of breast cancer, but I’ve had breast cancer three times,” said Susanne.
“On the first occasion, I was 39 years of age. On the second occasion, I was 48; and on the third occasion, I was 59.
“I remember noticing a large lump on my breast in 1991, for which I sought immediate medical attention at the breast clinic at Prince of Wales Hospital,” Susanne said.
“They were very proactive and put me through a mammogram, an ultrasound and then a biopsy.”
Susanne was subsequently diagnosed with grade three breast cancer, and her thoughts immediately turned to her young family.
“I remember thinking, I can’t die. I have children who need me, who have already been left traumatised by their parents’ terrible divorce. I also have a dependent mother and a business I need to continue to run.”
Despite her serious stage three breast cancer diagnosis, Susanne asked her doctors to postpone treatment until the school holidays when it was his access time.
Several weeks passed before Susanne’s ex-husband was able to fulfil the duty, which meant several long weeks before Susanne could commence her urgently required treatment.
“The doctors thought it was wrong that I couldn’t commence treatment straight away.
But I had to look after my children. On top of everything else, I didn’t want them to be scared that their mum was going to die,” said Susanne.
Susanne recalls undergoing grueling surgery with extreme lymphedema, followed by radiation therapy, which she describes as “a difficult treatment process”, from which she took a long time to recover.
“I remember my first course of radiotherapy. It was terrible. Back then, the therapy was not like it is today.
“It burnt my body and weakened the ribs on the left side of my body, to the point that I have broken them on several occasions since,” Susanne said.
Although commencing chemotherapy, due to an autoimmune condition that Susanne also battles, her doctor elected to cease her treatment, leaving her at heightened risk of the cancer returning – which did occur on two occasions thereafter.
“Because I couldn’t use chemotherapy, I was at increased risk of [breast cancer] recurrence.”
“The recovery process following my first and second diagnosis breast cancer was hard. It took decades and involved a cocktail of surgery and many different therapies,” Susanne said.
“I had a lumpectomy, mastectomy, underwent two courses of radiotherapy, endured two, five year periods of using tamoxifen (for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer), and had my ovaries removed via a hysterectomy, which went very poorly.”
“Following the hysterectomy, I ended up with septicaemia and experienced a build-up of lymph fluid, which had to be drained, to stabilise the prosthesis,” said Susanne.
“It was a tough time that involved a lot of rehabilitation and a long time for me to overcome.”
“Following my most recent breast cancer diagnosis, four years ago, I really noticed how treatment has progressed in leaps and bounds. Nowadays, radiotherapy is much better, less intense, and I am now using anastrozole [a hormone receptor positive breast cancer treatment for women who are no longer menstruating, whether due to surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or natural ageing], to manage my recovery,” Susanne said.
Given her torrid history of breast cancer, Susanne is well aware of the signs and symptoms of the often devastating disease, and undergoes regular mammograms. Yet rather than focusing on her illness, she prefers to focus on living.
“When diagnosed with breast cancer, you promise yourself that should you survive, you will completely transform your life. But when you do survive, life to continue as normal, and you tend to fall back into routine.”
“I don’t dwell on my sickness – I choose to get on with life,” said Susanne.
Susanne supports the initiative, For Benefit Medicines – Australia’s first ‘for-benefit’ pharmaceutical company whose sole purpose is to distribute 100 per cent of profits to local patient support and medical research organisations.
Susanne believes the initiative will benefit the breast cancer community at-large.
“Focusing on research and helping the broader breast cancer community, is valuable,” Susanne said.
“It’s important to support research into breast cancer and patient advocacy. Early detection of breast cancer is critical, and I don’t mean pop diets or fads. “
“Prevention is only achieved through serious scientific and medical research,” said Susanne.
“As a three-time breast cancer survivor, I recommend all women undergo regular mammograms and keep abreast of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, because prevention saves lives.”