Two-time breast cancer survivor is grateful for treatment innovations
When Suzanne Callahan first came to MD Anderson in 1997, she was a terrified 38-year-old mother with stage IIIB breast cancer in her left breast. Now, 20 years later, she’s a confident grandmother and two-time survivor.
“I wanted to do everything I could to extend my life,” Suzanne says. Her mother died of breast cancer in 1985 at age 68. So when she received her own diagnosis that first time, Suzanne knew every year with her boys, then ages 5 and 9, would be precious.
She made an appointment at MD Anderson and was on a plane from Arkansas to Houston within four days. “I wanted desperately to go to a physician who sees and treats people like me all day, every day,” she says.
“Living” during aggressive breast cancer treatments
At her first appointment, Suzanne met oncologist James Murray, M.D., and surgeon Kelly Hunt, M.D. Her 7-cm breast cancer tumor was a subtype now known as triple-negative. It’s among the most difficult breast cancers to treat.
“Back then, we had limited treatment options for such a large tumor,” Hunt says. Suzanne also had over 20 cancerous lymph nodes.
Suzanne had chemotherapy in July 1997, a mastectomy of her left breast in October and then more chemotherapy. The junior high choir director often flew to Houston for 36-hour chemotherapy infusions and back home without missing a day of school.
“People in Arkansas thought I was crazy for traveling so far for treatments,” Suzanne says. “But for me, traveling for the best care wasn’t a difficult decision.”
“I didn’t spend time dying, I spent time living,” says Suzanne, who once flew to Houston with her boys and husband, picked up her “fanny pack of chemo” and went to a Houston Rockets basketball game.
She returned to Arkansas for 35 radiation therapy treatments, and her cancer was in remission by summer 1998.
19 years of body “unevenness”
In 1998, Suzanne chose not to have reconstruction.
“I didn’t want to go back to the hospital and honestly, I didn’t think I was going to live that long,” Suzanne says. So she opted for a prosthetic breast.
“It was cumbersome, hot and awful,” she says. “I had every brand of every shirt trying to disguise my unevenness. I was very focused on how I looked.”
While the prosthesis didn’t limit Suzanne – she wore swimsuits to the pool and beach – her body image struggles persisted until her second mastectomy, 19 years later.
Second primary breast cancer diagnosis
In October 2016, Suzanne’s yearly mammogram at MD Anderson showed two small tumors in her right breast. An ultrasound-guided biopsy revealed a second primary breast cancer. It was caught early.
Suzanne asked to see Murray and Hunt again. “It’s like when you have a baby, you just bond,” she says.
With her second cancer diagnosis, Suzanne learned about hereditary breast cancer. Since her mother had breast cancer and her sister had ovarian cancer, Suzanne and her sister had genetic testing. They learned they both carry the BRCA gene, which increases their risks for breast and ovarian cancers.
Better options for second breast cancer treatment
This time, Suzanne had better treatment options. She could have breast-conserving surgery to remove the tumors and preserve her breast, along with immediate breast reconstruction.
“We know so much more about breast cancer treatment now because of brave people like Suzanne,” Hunt says.
Suzanne chose a mastectomy without reconstruction. “I was uneven for 19 years, so I wanted my whole right breast removed to match my left,” says Suzanne, whose decision gave her peace of mind.
Support and knowledge to overcome cancer
Suzanne feels blessed to have overcome breast cancer twice. “Believe it or not, cancer made my family better,” she says. “We are closer and we don’t take anything for granted, not one single minute of the day.”
Suzanne’s keys to surviving? Support and knowledge.
While traveling for treatment, she relied on her faith and her family and friends to care for her boys. Her family and friends also visited her often in the hospital. For more personal support, she joined groups in Arkansas and online.
Suzanne also read up on breast cancer -- a lot. And she asked her care team countless questions.
“Never put your head in the sand,” Suzanne says. “It’s important to know what, why and how because the decisions you make can save your life.”
And for Suzanne, going to MD Anderson was one of those decisions. “There will always be new innovative treatments on the horizon,” she says. “So I tell people, go to MD Anderson because they’ll discover it first.”