Breast Cancer Survivor

Survivor Draws Strength From Loving Support

Susan Heller never let her breast cancer diagnosis define her. But even after 25 years as a survivor, she draws on her experience to educate others and offer compassion when the opportunity arises. Her biggest piece of advice? Surround yourself with people you love and trust.

At 31, I was happy, successful and surrounded by like-minded friends. We all thought we were invincible and, in a way, that mentality almost made it so. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was the first one of us with a serious illness. Looking back now, I truly believe having that unshakeable mindset and their support got me through it.

It was 1994, and I owned a real estate office in Pennsylvania. During one of my frequent visits with my dad and his wife in Florida, I felt a pimple with a lump behind it under my bra line. I returned home and saw a doctor who had a very nonchalant attitude and told me not to worry, that I was too young to have cancer. Nevertheless, she did a biopsy. Still waiting for the results a week later, I saw another doctor who did a biopsy, and he was decidedly more concerned. He told me I probably had cancer and had about a 50-50 chance of survival so I’d need treatment as soon as possible, either a lumpectomy or mastectomy and chemotherapy. And, I was going to lose my hair. He alarmed me.

That afternoon I received the results of both biopsies. I had breast cancer. I wasn’t happy with the physicians I’d met, and I decided I needed to be more resourceful. I went back to Florida (my happy place) to clear my head and do my own research.

When I returned to Philadelphia, I met with a very positive, upbeat and strong doctor. She sent me for a bone scan and chest X-ray and had the results two hours later (none of this waiting a week or two for results!). I was impressed by how proactive she was and knew instantly I wanted her in my corner. She confirmed the diagnosis and wanted to schedule surgery for the following week. I said that was pretty fast, and she asked if I had anything more important to do. When she put it that way …

In those few days, I met with other doctors, radiologists and plastic surgeons about reconstruction. I also went to a breast cancer support group. I had a very positive outlook, but I found lots of doom and gloom. One survivor said, “I used to have your attitude. Until it came back.” Her comment made me realize I wanted to do everything in my power to save my life.

I called my doctor the Friday before surgery to share the conversation and tell her about my doubts. I was thinking about a bilateral mastectomy versus a single mastectomy. She asked me what I wanted. I was young and I wanted to LIVE. We talked through it, and she supported my decision to have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction with a TRAM flap followed with implants later.

None of the 28 lymph nodes that were removed during surgery were affected. I had several drains that needed tending, and they were really awkward. Being bathed by others and needing so much help is humbling, especially when you consider yourself a young, strong, independent woman.

After several weeks of recovery, I started chemotherapy. Thinking I might lose my hair was huge. I went wig shopping, just in case, but my hair only thinned so I didn’t buy one. Seeing the toxic skull and crossbones symbol on the chemotherapy bags was a big reality check. It helped to always take a friend (and a notebook) to every appointment. I was confident but, nonetheless, I wrote a will, designating who would get my jewelry, my shoes and my 26-pound cat, Clyde.

During treatment, I had a tremendous amount of energy. My wonderful manager kept me connected with my office of 50 real estate agents, but when I had trouble sleeping, I’d work, leaving voice mails throughout the night. My team asked me if I ever slept, and sometimes I didn’t! I loved my career, and it was very healing to stay busy.

I’ve never been afraid to say I had breast cancer, but I don’t dwell on it. If I feel it’s relevant or if I think my experience can help someone, I’m quick to share. It helped me grow, and I’m sure I’m a stronger person as a result. But I didn’t do it alone. I had a massive support team of people. My mom, dad and his wife, and best friends were with me every step of the way. One friend sat on the couch with me as we cried and ate Twizzlers. Another took me to the mall in a wheelchair just so I could be out and feel alive. Two others took me out for a wonderful dinner filled with so much laughter I had to ask them to stop — my incision was hurting. They all did whatever I needed without me having to ask.

People may find this hard to believe, but I don’t look back at this as a bad time. It was just part of being me. There was a lot of pain at times, but there was also a lot of laughter. Even now, I get emotional thinking about it because I realize I was surrounded by so much love.