Susan Flavin, MSN, RN worked professionally as the clinical director of development for Johnson & Johnson and resided in Spring City, PA, about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia. The wife of Joseph, the mother of three active, healthy children, Susan lived a perceived picturesque existence with a balanced personal life and career.
Until her breast cancer diagnosis showed her just how much she was missing.
“I don’t care how it sounds to people—it was the best day of my life,” she recalled recently as she approached the 10-year anniversary of her 2009 diagnosis. “It triggered an epiphany.”
Back then, Susan didn’t have time for a quick break, let alone an epiphany. Her eldest daughter had just turned eight and was beginning to find her way in sports and other normal childhood activities, and Susan was committed to being there every step of the way while maintaining her career trajectory.
But long before she was ever diagnosed with breast cancer, Susan learned that surviving an ordeal could bring her some of life’s greatest gifts. Susan’s twins—born 11 weeks prematurely in 2007—were ‘miracle babies’ who survived any number of health scares in the days and months following their early births. The twins were almost out of the woods by early 2009 when Susan learned that one of the toddlers would need heart surgery.
A stressful occasion for any parent ultimately became a triumph, as the youngster came through surgery with a clean bill of health. But due to an increased risk of infection, returning to daycare was out of the question for at least three weeks, which meant unexpected time at home. At the time, Susan saw this as an opportunity.
“I’d made arrangements to work from home—but I also had a chance to catch up on some things,” she recalled. “I got my teeth cleaned, got the car serviced, and I figured I’d finally schedule a mammogram.”
You can guess the next part of the story. Inconclusive results led to a second and third mammogram and ultimately to a biopsy due to calcifications observed on the image. “I thought they were crazy,” Susan remembered. “But they told me ‘if the radiologist calls you, that’s good news. If it’s the surgeon, that’s bad news.’”
Days later, Susan was in a meeting at work when her phone rang. The call was from Martin Vinca, MD.
Dr. Vinca’s title? General Surgery Specialist.
Facing a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), Susan wasn’t content to sit and wait to formulate a plan. “We need to get this out,” she told Dr. Vinca immediately.
Dr. Vinca explained that it wasn’t that simple and that he’d need to review his schedule but Susan took charge. “Marty, today’s Wednesday,” she told her trusted surgeon. “You’ve got four days.”
Three days later, she underwent a lumpectomy.
For Susan, this was the easy part. The cancer was obviously a problem, so she literally cut it out of her life completely. But radiation had to follow, which would require certain conversations with family, coworkers, and others in her life who she was determined to stop from viewing her any differently than they had previously—a driven, career-oriented woman who still made abundant time for her children.
“I never wanted to feel sick,” she explained. “I remember telling my mom (about the cancer) and she reacted as if it was the end. I didn’t want to have that conversation repeatedly. What am I gonna do, feel sorry for myself? Sit at home watching Lifetime?”
If she did, it must have been at night, because for the next six weeks Susan was on the road by 5:45 a.m. five days a week to make it to radiation therapy by 6:30 a.m., and to work by 8 a.m. Indeed this was a woman who was not going to be perceived as being “sick’; merely ‘recovering’.
Weeks later, Susan was pronounced cancer-free, and returned to work full-time. But she wasn’t 100 percent ‘back’ just yet.
“It does burn you out,” she reluctantly admitted. “You’re very tired by the end. Luckily, my support system included my then-boss, Dr. Elliott Barnathan—he was a rock. He supported me through the entire [cancer recovery process].”
So if you’re in search of a happy ending, here it is—Susan’s alive today. She’s 52 years old, still married to Joseph, still the mother of three children, and still leading a thriving career. In a way, everything is just as it was on that horrible day back in 2009 when she received her diagnosis. There it is—the story of how Susan Flavin did not die from breast cancer.
But if you want to learn how breast cancer caused her to be born all over again—why her diagnosis became ‘the best day of her life’ and how it caused the aforementioned ‘epiphany’—check back next week for part 2 of Susan’s amazing journey.