By Deborah Manzanares
Borders Home Office, Ann Arbor, MI
Sue Buchanan is vice president of Dynamic Media, Inc., producers of video and computer-based business presentations. More importantly, she is a breast cancer survivor. Her first book, I'm Alive & the Doctor's Dead, was a result of the encouragement from her friends to share her story. She uses her humor to shed light on breast cancer and encourage women in similar circumstances. She is also a co-author of Friends Through Thick and Thin and a newly released humorous devotional book, Duh Votions.
How many years has it been since you were diagnosed with cancer?
SB: 16. 17 in January.
I'm Alive & the Doctor's Dead is a memoir and a source of encouragement to others. What got you started writing this book?
SB: I kept a journal hoping only that someday my daughters would read it and have an understanding of how I got through a very difficult time. Not long after my experience, a close friend, Jerry Jenkins (the author of the Left Behind series) said "Your story is so positive and encouraging, would be so helpful to others; why don't I ghost write your experience and get it published." With great hesitance I told him about my journal and after he took a look at it , he said "You don't need me! This is good; this is really fresh writing," and the next thing I knew he had connected me with an agent. Having a book... books... [published] is still the surprise of my life. I keep thinking we're talking about someone else.
How do you address the fear that accompanies breast cancer?
SB: The fear is real. It can be paralyzing. My daughter Dana has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and is over halfway through her treatment. As I walked through the early days with her, and her husband Barry, I re-lived my own experience. Fear beyond words! But you put one foot in front of the other and (it's a cliché, but true) you take it one day at a time. You get a notebook and go to work. As you accumulate knowledge, and make a plan, then [as you] begin to move ahead with that plan you begin to feel more in control. God was a huge part of my plan and prayer was the greatest source of wisdom and comfort. I believe in a God who doesn't make bad things happen, but can take the bad things and use them for good. He expects you to use your God-given brain, and think things through using all the resources you are able to come up with. The fear I experienced for my daughter was hugely intensified over mine for myself. This is gonna sound really crazy and I wouldn't wish this horrible disease on anyone on the face of the world, but I'm so privileged to be part of Dana and Barry's life at this time and see them view the world in a new light, love each other with a new intensity, and find a spiritual depth and maturity that can't be found except through difficult times of trusting God.
You openly talk about your mastectomy and your replacement surgery; what is the key point to bring across?
SB: Right after the mastectomy and diagnosis, my thoughts weren't on cancer, dying, chemotherapy, losing hair and the rest. Mine was on the fact my body was destroyed. I was worried I couldn't wear my leopard skin underwear anymore! I've found that many (maybe most) are dealing with the physical even though they are embarrassed to say so, and usually say quite the opposite. This should be recognized and acknowledged. For me, making a plan for reconstructive surgery was a must. Making the plan in itself empowered me.
While writing this book you did a lot of research about cancer, even to the extent of watching reconstructive surgery. What is your driving force?
SB: I found it fascinating. I suppose at the time my motivation was to accumulate a lot of knowledge and information so that I could know everything there was to know. Have all the resources at my fingertips so that I could be the guru who helped others through this huggermugger. I thought I could change the world even. I went to Washington and ate lunch with my congressmen, lobbied, did a couple of TV interviews from the lawn of the Capitol and became slightly obnoxious in my pursuit of knowledge. Eventually, I decided that my calling was to be a cheerleader, not an activist. As a cheerleader my role is to say, "You can do it. You can find out the answers. You can be empowered." I like that. I do accumulate a lot of knowledge, but I keep that a secret.
When faced with cancer, knowledge is very important. What and where are some of things you discovered?
SB: 1. Trust your instincts. Know your body. Lay in the tub, soap your hands and feel. It seems that far more women I meet have found the discrepancy in their breasts themselves, [rather than by] by mammography. I'm not saying don't have mammograms, but in my opinion they give a false sense of security. I've met many, many women [who] have had regular mammograms that haven't detected their malignancy. Best example is my daughter, the mammogram never showed her cancer (or even a problem) -- not even the week of her biopsy; a third of her breast was cancer filled. She was under extra careful scrutiny because of family history. Go figure. I hear this story over and over. So I say again, know your own body. Funny how we were taught not to touch our bodies and yet it's so important to our health.
2. Remember, "it's all done with lights and mirrors!" If you're one of those who are diagnosed with cancer, remember that you're the same person you were before the disease. You have a new set of things to handle and deal with, true! But don't think of yourself as "that person with cancer." Don't let people treat you that way. Let them love you and support you, maybe even shed a few tears with you, but don't wallow in it. Pretty soon you'll be thinking "there is life after cancer." I tell my daughter "put on that wig, walk with a little wiggle, flip your hair like it was the real thing, not a wig. It's all done with lights and mirrors."
3. Celebrate each step of the way. Another treatment behind us, let's celebrate!
4. Don't call chemotherapy "that horrible thing." Bow your head, or fall on your knees and say "Thank you God for this wonderful stuff that will make me well; take it to all the areas of my body that need it. Let my body slurp it up!"
5. Life is so beautiful on the other side of cancer; I can't begin to describe it. And I'm told that heaven is quite lovely, too -- should that be the eventuality. Aren't we all terminal after all?
Your relationships with family and friends intensified during the year of chemotherapy. Explain this importance.
SB: Life intensified during and after this overwhelming interference in my life. I feel more passionately about everything. It's almost [like] I was sleep-walking before. A friend suggested that at any given time you should sit down, take a piece of paper and make two columns. One says "Bad things in my life" and the other says "Good things." He said eventually you will be able to move the bad things to the other side of the paper. In my case, that's true. For instance, I'm sure I never would have written a book, followed by two other books, [with] another to be published in January -- and now have sold two children's books.
When you thought that you might not make it to see Christmas the year of your treatment, what actions did you take?
SB: I set out to create a lot of memories. I should have been doing that all along, huh? And I did to a certain extent, but perhaps more by rote than with my heart.
Any words of encouragement, that you can share?
SB: Encouragement for the survivors. Only that we have to move on with our lives after going through the grief process. Many people change their life-styles believing that it can lessen their chances of having cancer. My daughter's doctor has given her some very simple things to do and I think it's worth passing on. She says that she has never had a cancer metastasize when the patient committed to this: exercise, soy, flaxseed, [and] CO-Q-10. There are hundreds of nutrition books and plans and more information than you could assimilate in a lifetime. At some point you have to stop reading and start living!
With statistics like "The equivalent of four jumbo jets loads of Americans die every day of cancer" and "One in three us have that reservation, "how do you address these very real issues and words of hope can you convey?
SB: I think a lot of people have to get mad and perhaps a grass roots uprising has to take place. I could be wrong but it seems as if it's not money that's needed, but a cooperation between all of the entities: government, private sector, pharmaceutical, scientists, universities, etc. to find a cure.
I meet a lot of people around the country who are doing unorthodox things and are getting well. I know that the mind is a very powerful tool and sometimes believing to the [fullest] extent... can make the body heal.
Interview with Sue Buchanan (used by permission) copyright 1999 by Borders Online, Inc. All rights reserved.
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