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Learning and Transforming After Cancer: Susan McMillan

May 6, 2013

I missed my routine mammogram in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina. I never really gave it much thought because my last 10 mammograms had come back normal. Finally, in May 2006, I scheduled another mammogram.

I will never forget the technician’s call. “You must come back in; we think there is a problem,” she said. The radiologist had seen a dot the size of a period and wanted to investigate more. I went in for a needle biopsy which was one of the toughest parts of this entire journey. Doctors determined I had stage III breast cancer.

At that moment I felt like I was in a swirling tornado. It couldn’t be me! I didn’t have any symptoms—no lump—and I thought that surely they had the records mixed up. But no, I had breast cancer. I was 53 years old, and up until this point in my life, I had never been in a hospital for any procedure other than childbirth. I hadn’t even had an IV in my arm.  

I decided to follow the doctor’s recommendation to have a mastectomy. Luckily, I had never been a very vain person and was not very attached to my breasts. Because I had to face a rigorous treatment of chemotherapy and radiation, I decided to wait before considering reconstruction. I wanted my body to rest. What was more important to me was that I didn’t have to go back in for more surgery. I wanted to live. I had a wonderful husband and two fantastic children; I was young and not about to give up. I also had the best, most supportive friends and family in the world. 

After 2 1/2 years, I decided to move forward with reconstruction. I had large breasts, and with nothing on one side and a huge breast on the other, I felt like my entire balance was thrown off. I really didn’t want to go through the rest of my life feeling like this. I wanted to feel more balanced and normal.

I underwent DIEP flap reconstruction, where fat from my abdomen was transferred to my chest to rebuild my breast My left breast was also reduced for symmetry. It truly was a win-win situation for me!   

Gratefully, I have been in remission for almost seven years. I have been more than blessed, and now I am working for St. Charles Surgical Hospital in New Orleans as their patient representative. As a registered social worker wearing many hats, I enjoy helping other cancer patients as they go through their cancer journey. I truly understand what they are going through as they move through their surgery and into a joyful transformation of being made “whole again.” It takes a lot of courage to fight this disease, but with God’s help, great surgeons who care, family and friends you can do it one day at a time. I am where I am supposed to be right now at this moment in my life. 

Here are a few simple things I have learned about cancer:

  • Cancer can't take away hope, love or joy.
  • A good attitude will serve you well in all circumstances.
  • Finding the right doctors is imperative, and I would like to elaborate on this a little. It is very important that you go to a doctor that informs you of all your treatment options so you can make an educated decision. Doctors can have a huge impact on your life and how you handle the diagnosis. Your surgical oncologist, medical oncologist and reconstructive surgeon should all be “on your team.” The process from diagnosis through treatment can be lengthy, and you must do your research and find the right doctors and treatment options for you. Ask questions, talk to friends and family, research the web, learn everything you can and find organizations such as LBBC to help you.
  • Be grateful for each and every day. No one is promised another one.
  • Tell your friends and loved ones you love them.
  • Wonderful experiences can come out of adversity.
  • Trust in God, as he will give you peace in all circumstances.
  • Cancer is not ever simple.

Cheers to living gratefully always!

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The views expressed in this story are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Living Beyond Breast Cancer.