Survivor Story: How Susan Kitchin’s Philosophy Helped Her Through Breast Cancer

Mammograms are critical for finding breast cancers in localized and early stages. We hope this story will inspire you to get screened at a facility near you

Susan Kitchin, an employee of Dignity Health in Santa Cruz and a breast cancer survivor, is a big proponent of self-exams. In fact, it was a breast self-exam that helped her catch her cancer early. She had a mammogram in April 2008 that was clear, but she went ahead and did a self-exam in October 2008. That’s when she noticed a lump.

“Because my sister and niece were both diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s, I had been somewhat diligent in doing self-exams,” she says. “This time, though, I felt a lump that had not been there before. I knew instantly what it was.”

She called her primary-care doctor, who scheduled a biopsy. Her surgeon felt certain it would be benign. It wasn’t. She got a call at the end of the week telling her that she had malignant, invasive breast cancer.

“It took my breath away,” she says. “I started to think it through and grasp what it really meant. I immediately told my partner, then I called my sister, and I began to just focus on, ‘What do I do next?'”

The Waiting Game

One of the things that really impacted Susan was just how much waiting was involved in her treatment.

“Waiting for the biopsy, then for the results, then for the appointment to discuss options, then for surgery, then for the results of pathology,” she says. “During those moments, your mind can go anywhere.”

When Susan first had an appointment with her surgeon to discuss options, he presented her with a difficult choice: a mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation.

“He asked me which I wanted,” Susan says. “I couldn’t process that information and answer that quickly! It was like he was asking me if I wanted fries or onion rings, and my brain couldn’t go there.”

At first, she chose a mastectomy. But after talking with friends and doing some research, she asked her doctor if she could get a lumpectomy now and decide later about a mastectomy. Her doctor said she’d support Susan in whatever choice she made.

“That was the most relief I’d received since the initial diagnosis. It was too much to decide at once!”

Susan had a lumpectomy and underwent six weeks of radiation. The lumpectomy came back with clear margins. Susan’s been in remission now for almost eight years. She has a breast MRI every other year and a mammogram the other years.

Family and Friends: Follow Your Loved One’s Lead

If you have a loved one with breast cancer, ask them what they need and follow their lead, Susan advises.

“Do not tell them stories about everyone you know who had breast cancer,” she advises. “Especially don’t tell them stories about someone who had a bad outcome. I always suggest that the support person bring a recording device for important appointments so their loved one can listen to it later. Sometimes, you hear something that the doctor says, and you’re so focused on that one big thing that you’re checked out for the rest of the appointment.”

Make sure that you’re being supportive and not putting more burdens on your loved one, she adds.

“Be careful not to project your own feelings onto them,” she says. “It’s horrible to be going through something hard and have to take care of someone else because they can’t handle it. Be honest. If you’re afraid, say you’re afraid, but assure them that you’re taking care of yourself.”

And come up with fun things to do.

“If they don’t want to talk about it, propose something fun or something different,” she says. “The most helpful support was from friends who came by to take me out to do something fun, that made me feel alive. I went for short hikes. I learned to geocache. We walked on the beach and took photos.”

Susan found encouragement from others who had also dealt with difficult diagnoses. Her sister had battled a similar cancer, and they talked on the phone often. Susan also joined a forum for women with breast cancer.

“It was good to have a place that was somewhat anonymous,” she says. “This was not a forum for medical professionals, but only for women to talk to other women, and that was a helpful retreat from time to time.”

Live Every Moment, and Don’t Waste a Thing

Susan has both practical and philosophical advice to share. First, don’t neglect breast self-exams.

“I know you think your breasts are too lumpy or too fibrous to feel anything in there, but do them anyway,” she says. “When there’s suddenly something different in there, you’ll know it. Not everything shows up on mammograms. My breast cancer, my sister’s, and my niece’s were all found by self-exam rather than mammogram.”

Mammograms are still important, she’s quick to add.

“I know you don’t like them and think it feels like your boob is getting run over by a car, but do them anyway. If you don’t like how a mammogram feels, you’re really not going to like surgery, radiation, or chemo.”

For women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, Susan says to focus on living, even in the middle of the wait and the worry.

“This is what I learned to say to myself: I’m going through breast cancer treatment because I want to be alive. This moment, right now, is a moment that I am alive. This day is a day that I’m living in and sure of. I’m not going to waste it by being depressed or by conjuring up bad outcomes; I’m going to use this day to be alive and enjoy every moment of it.”

Susan believes that in the end, her diagnosis helped reorient her life positively.

“It was a bump in the road that eventually just headed me off in a better direction,” she says. “I actually like to call it a ‘lump’ in the road.”

Image source: Susan Kitchin