The Story of One Nurse Conquering Breast Cancer
Editor’s note: Susan Flavin, MSN, RN, shared her story about her 2009 breast cancer diagnosis and recovery with us a couple weeks ago. This is the rest of Susan’s story.
At this point, we’ve established Susan Flavin as someone who works tirelessly—getting up early for radiation treatments so as not to disturb her work schedule, demanding her surgery take place as soon as humanly possible. It paints a picture of someone who knows what she wants, knows how to get it, and will not be disrupted or deterred until the destination is reached.
In part one of this story, you’ll notice Susan didn’t use the words ‘cancer recovery process’ (that’s called paraphrasing for ease of reading.) No, she said ‘supported me through the entire thing.’ See, she didn’t like naming or identifying that ‘thing’ that could’ve destroyed her life.
Until it became the ‘thing’ that turned her life around.
“Breast cancer forced me to look at my own mortality,” she summarized.
It was only upon receiving her diagnosis that Susan had that aforementioned epiphany. She had a destination, and she had a roadmap to get there—she just couldn’t turn on the engine. Until now. Today, Dr. Flavin recalls her diagnosis as a turning point in her life.
Oh, that title change? Doctor Flavin? That was Susan’s first order of business upon returning to full health.
“I had a second chance. I need to make the most of it,” she decided. “At the time I was so grateful. So I signed on for a seven-year commitment to get this PhD.”
Instead, she finished the program in only four years. When Susan talks about the epiphany that her diagnosis brought about, she always returns to discussing a purpose, a goal, which she now has for everything she does.
“I’d never say I was content,” she recalled, “But before this, I was lackadaisical. I went to school. I was a nurse, I worked in pharma. It was OK,” she said. “I was going through the motions. Monday, Tuesday… check the box. There was no passion.”
Her next breakthrough came in 2012, when she did the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk—a 60-mile journey to raise money to fight breast cancer. “I started to realize how lucky I was,” she said. “I go home, and I get annoyed because the carpet’s dirty. Now I’m meeting people who need to stop walking because they’re tired, because they just got out of their 20th chemo treatment. And you know what I was doing? Smoking. I was smoking a cigarette, behind a parked car, at the 3-Day Walk.”
Susan’s aware how that part of the story will sound to healthcare providers, people who’ve survived cancer—but she’s not afraid. To her, it’s an important part of the story. She knows the person she was, and how her journey brought her to the place she is today. “I was stressed,” she said. “School, family—it was my only outlet.”
“When something like that (cancer) hits you, it’s like this gradual shift, this evolution, of your character,” she said. “If you’re lucky. I know people, some of my close friends, in fact. They’ve gotten this diagnosis, and they sort of packed it in.”
Well, that’s it. I have breast cancer. Life sucks, I guess I’m just going to live out the rest of my years.
“And I want to tell them, you had breast cancer 15 years ago! Get over it! You’re still on the right side of the grass.”
Yes, she eventually kicked the smoking habit. But true to her personality, she didn’t do it through hypnosis, or a patch—no, she just found another outlet for stress.
“My friend Shirleen Smiley, she changed the trajectory of my life. She saw I did the 3-Day Walk, and she said ‘Hey, great job. You should do this 5K Mud Run with me.’”
“I didn’t run. I am no athlete. But she said listen, it’s only February. This isn’t until August. So I trained, six months for a 5K.”
At this point, Susan was almost four years removed from breast cancer treatment, but she admits she still felt fatigued at times. Training was the first experience that pushed her past her fatigue and allowed her to see what else could be accomplished.
“I did the 5K,” she summarized. “Then, I did another one. Then my sister-in-law stated talking about the Love Run in Philadelphia.
“That’s not a 5K, Cheryl. That’s a half marathon.”
This was in the fall of 2014. On January 1, 2015, Susan quit smoking. “No more excuses,” she explained. “I was about to graduate, I was running. People are seeing me as this breast cancer survivor, telling me I’m so wonderful… I couldn’t hide it anymore. So I quit.”
Uh-oh… there’s Susan’s least favorite term—breast cancer survivor. “I really hate that term,” she said. “It has this connotation you went through something bad. Again, for me it was a blessing. It gave me the kick in the (butt) I needed to go to school, it gave me the fortitude to go through with the 5K.”
As you might imagine, Susan continued to embark on this new passion, right up to this past spring when she completed her first Boston Marathon on the coldest, rainiest day in the history of the event as part of the iconic Kathrine Switzer’s 261Fearless marathon team. Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to register and run Boston as a numbered entrant some 51 years ago, and 261Fearless is all about empowering women through running. Sense a theme?
“The running community is very special, because everyone comes in with a story,” Susan said. “It’s the one outlet that helps me, it’s very supportive.”
“Imagine if we could take this community and transplant it into other places—for example, Washington, D.C. Bring together a Republican, and Democrat, and let them hear each other’s stories?”
Advice for others who go through this journey? It’s not about quitting bad habits, or running half-marathons… Susan’s biggest takeaway is that patients need to be their own biggest advocates. “When I first went in for treatment, the oncologist had this plan that involved putting me on Herceptin,” she recalled. “I wasn’t even HER-2 positive. I had no familial history, nothing. When I looked at risk vs. benefit, I wasn’t willing to do it.
“He says, ‘What, are you a physician?’”
After some more back and forth, Susan demanded her chart and other personal information, and told the doctor she wouldn’t be returning. “You have to be an advocate,” she insisted. “And even if you are lucky enough to view the whole experience as a blessing, which I did—you have to be mad that this is happening.”
But can someone without Susan’s background—her knowledge, her education—advocate so strongly? “I think so,” she said. “They (medical professionals) are working for you. They need to tell you why you should hire them.”
It’s a lesson Susan is now all too aware she may have to teach to those closer to her some day. It’s not a pleasant topic, but the truth is that her three children, two of them daughters, now face a future with a family history of breast cancer. How does she teach them to confront such a reality?
“Life is not all sunshine and roses,” she said. “You can be a glass half-full person, or glass half-empty. This is not the end of the world. Someone always has it worse. I just tell them, you can get through anything if you have the right perspective.”
(You won’t be surprised to learn the message hit home. Click here to read the thoughts of Mia, Susan’s 17-year-old daughter.)
Subtlety has more or less gone out the window in our society by 2018. Political discourse, social norms, and personal interactions are inundated with people claiming they’re ‘straight shooters’ who ‘tell it like it is.’ This is even present in the world of people who’ve survived cancer. They often wear t-shirts proclaiming that they’ve ‘kicked cancer’s ass’ or in some cases, the more direct ‘F*ck cancer.’
Dr. Susan Flavin isn’t particularly prone to subtlety either. But she doesn’t need to say one word to make that apparent.
You want to kick cancer’s ass? Finish your PhD in half the expected time all while recovering from treatment for the disease.
You want to give cancer the middle finger? Run the Boston Marathon in a downpour with 38-degree temperatures.
“It’s the same as what I tell my kids,” Susan concluded. “It’s all about your perspective. And mine is that I choose to be grateful for all of it.”
Even breast cancer?
“Especially breast cancer.”
(Editor’s note: Mia is the 17-year-old daughter of Dr. Susan Flavin. She’s currently a senior in high school, with plans to enroll in college next fall. She’s not yet sure where she’ll be attending school, but when she decides her major is a foregone conclusion—it’s nursing all the way.)
After viewing my mother’s life through the eyes of an admiring daughter, I believe she embodies every lyric of the song “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw. The song essentially talks about the immediate change in the outlook of one’s life after they are diagnosed with cancer, and when I played this song for my mom the first time, every part of her mood changed and her eyes welled up with tears.
Her favorite lyrics are:
“I went sky divin’, I went Rocky Mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu,
And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance:
To live like you were dyin’”
…simply because of the fact that everything in her life changed the day she got her diagnosis.
I admire my mother because of the hardships she has been thrown and the way she overcomes them. She didn’t let the loss of her father, her mother, the sickness of her children, nor the sickness of herself stop her in her tracks from living a life of growth, happiness, and success.
She took all of this pain, with impacts that even some of the strongest people could not survive, and turned it into progress. She began spending every day with her family and friends like it would be her last, because as humans, we truly do not know when our last moments on this Earth will be.
I admire her resilience and strength with all she has dealt with. When I was younger, I remember my mom having this thing called “breast cancer”, but never understood the magnitude of what it was. She never let me see her in pain, she never let me see her suffer. She would go to her radiation before work and come home after work with a heart full of love and gratitude, lucky to spend another day on this earth with me. She was stern and open with the doctors about everything—the cancer would never be able to control her life.
There is something about my mother that will always live on within me, even after she is not around anymore. The impact that she has on people and the way that she has changed lives by such small acts is a lesson I will never in my life be able to learn in a classroom, and I am so lucky to have my mom as my mentor, my teacher, and most importantly my hero.