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I had Breast Cancer—the story of Sue Davis Buchanan
The passages below are taken from Thomas A. Shaw & Dwight A. Clough’s book “Amazing Faith,” published in 2003 by Moody Publishers.
“Your mother is as good as dead.”
My daughter’s friend was talking about me. Coming from a physician’s family, she knew the medical truth: Nobody expected me to survive.
It happened like this: I complained of pain. “Don’t worry,” the doctor said. “There’s no pain with breast cancer.., unless, of course, it’s in the latter stages.”
I went back to work and tried not to worry. I tried to think about my work. I was trying to focus on the client in my office when my secretary interrupted. I had a phone call. “It’s your doctor,” my secretary apologized. “He says it’s urgent.
I picked up the phone. “We need a biopsy,” the doctor said. “I wouldn’t wait if I were you.”
When I arrived at his office, the doctor had papers for me to sign. “Probably nothing,” he said, “but if we do get in there and find a problem, we’ll need to take the breast.”
Things were moving too fast. I thought this was a biopsy. I didn’t want to go to sleep and wake up without a breast. I wrote “LUMPECTOMY ONLY!!!” with a Magic Marker across my chart, but it was no use. My life was already on an out-of-control flight I didn’t schedule. I was on a journey I didn’t want to take.
A mastectomy followed, and then twelve months of chemotherapy, bringing with it everything from hair loss to hallucinations, from nausea to night terrors.
The night terrors were the worst. Again and again they came back, sometimes more than once a night. Often I fell asleep at my normal time only to wake minutes later in panic. My body, drenched in sweat, tossed as my mind careened through all my fears. Will I go through the misery of chemotherapy only to find out it hasn’t done its job? Will I die? Will I be a bedridden burden to my family? Will I see my oldest daughter graduate from college and my youngest from high school? Will I be around for their weddings? Will I know my grandchildren?
I felt my prayers were not working. I couldn’t find any prayer words. When I tried, the words fell flat, bouncing off the ceiling fan, coming back in my face to mock me. Sometimes I got angry. Sometimes I yelled and screamed at God, “Are You there? Are You listening? Where are You?”
It wasn’t as though God and I were strangers. My parents were Christians; with all their might they were Christians. They took me to a Bible church where the Sunday school teachers pounded Scripture into us. Learning Bible verses was serious business when I was a kid. In our church they did everything to make sure we could quote as many of them as possible. They tricked us. They bribed us. They cajoled us. They bombarded us with Scripture.
But even though I embraced the faith of my parents and my church, I never really fit in. When I was supposed to be listening to the sermon, I was thinking about throwing spit-balls at the bald man in the second row. Even as a young child, I had my own unique identity.
In my neighborhood, I was Mrs. Vandertweezers, dressed in mama’s cast-off satin blouse that dragged the floor on me, high-heeled shoes, a big hat with a veil, plenty of glittery jewelry; gobs of makeup, and---for a final touch around the neck---an animal that bit its own tail. Down the street past the convent I strolled, pushing my baby buggy. Inside, my cat, Smokey the Pirate Don Derek of Don Day, squirmed in doll clothes. I greeted the neighbors and brought them up to date on the activities of “Manny,” my imaginary husband.
When I returned from these walks, Mother often looked at Daddy and said, “She’s not like my family.” He shook his head. “She’s not like our family.” Then Mother looked at me and said, “Children should be seen and not heard. Especially you, honey.”
I grew up, not a rebel, but not exactly a soldier in uniform. Even though I grew older, the Mrs. Vandertweezers persona never really left me. I wore makeup, though it was against the rules in my very conservative church. (When they were short of a pianist, they asked me to go to the restroom, wash off my “barn paint,” and return to the platform so I could “serve the Lord.”) I went to Kings College and Moody Bible Institute for all the wrong reasons---to kiss and be kissed. College leaders met with me privately to see if there was some way I could disguise my Dolly Parton figure.
I got married, but I didn’t settle down the way church people wanted me to. I was asked to join a women’s auxiliary at a Bible college. I jumped in and suggested they use their budget surplus to buy bathroom scales. “The women in the dorms are getting fat,” I explained. “We need something so they can weigh themselves.”
Horror filled their faces. Finally, the director spoke:
“Don’t you realize this is the Lord’s money? Don’t you realize there are retired missionaries who can’t afford proper underwear?
So we bought underwear. The missionary sent it back (five times), but we bought underwear.
. . . .
And now, I had cancer. My hair fell out. I wore an artificial breast. And I was very, very sick.
The day after my mastectomy, a beautiful woman walked into my hospital room. “I came to encourage you,” she said. “I came to tell you that having cancer was the greatest privilege of my life.”
I wanted to slap her.
How could having cancer be a privilege? Doesn’t she know that Daddy died of cancer? Doesn’t she know that Mother has been fighting a losing battle with cancer? Hasn’t she heard that my three best girlfriends from high school are all dead, each one lost to breast cancer?
Her words, though unwelcome at the time, stayed with me, and they proved to be prophetic.
. . . .
My life before cancer is a dream with soft edges and blurred images. That dream ended the day I awoke with breast cancer. I say that I awoke at age forty-five with breast cancer. In a very real sense, that is true. In my struggle against this disease, I awoke in stages, to a God I didn’t realize was there, to a place of belonging I never had before, and to a new identity and mission in life.
I never expected Scripture to come alive to me like it did during that year. Before cancer, the many verses I had memorized as a child were to me mere platitudes, nice sayings, “out there” someplace, not having much to do with me. But as I lay in that hospital bed, passages that had been ribbons and awards at Bible memory meets suddenly exploded with meaning.
Oh! Ohh! I was startled by the impact of it all. This is what the Bible means when it speaks of the “peace that passes understanding.”
Scripture sustained me. It encouraged me. It empowered me. It got me through that horrible year. When I couldn’t pray, I prayed Scriptures. Scripture enabled me to answer the “Why me?” Scripture helped me face the fact that I truly might die.
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” became more than just the saying of an ancient apostle. It was transformed to gut-level truth.
· • . . .
Possibly because I didn’t fit in the church of my childhood, to me God was incredibly complicated. He had expectations I wasn’t sure I wanted to face. What if He didn’t like me as the grown-up Mrs. Vandertweezers? I didn’t want to get into trouble. But I didn’t want to push my luck either, by getting too inquisitive about divine requirements. After all, truly spiritual people are missionaries who never wear makeup, aren’t they?
But the God who met me in my time of greatest need was not complicated or unreasonable. He didn’t care if I wore makeup and jewelry, how I fixed my hair, or whether I tried to disguise my figure. None of those things mattered to Him.
The God who met me showed me that He was as close as I wanted Him to be. That little signs of His presence were all around me. That He only wanted one thing from me: He wanted me to be His person.
God’s will for my life is not some great unfathomable mystery. It’s really quite simple. All I need do is be His person one day at a time. Available. Open to His Spirit.
. . . . .
With the realization that I am accepted by God for who I am came the wonderful freedom to be part of the community of Christians. In the place of those who wanted me to wash off my “barn paint” and disguise my figure, God brought friends into my life who embraced me for who I am ---a high-energy, quirky personality with all the trappings of a party girl.
When I faced great challenge, these friends were there for me.
When the night terrors got so bad that even prescription drugs wouldn’t take them away, a friend came up to me and told me her experience with cancer and with those same nighttime fears. “I didn’t want to live, it was so bad,” she said. “But a friend of mine came to me and said, ‘June, I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to ask God to take away your fear. I won’t stop praying till He answers.’ Sue, I can tell you the minute and the hour my fear went away! I felt free and I knew it was gone!”
She paused, then leaned forward and touched me. “Sue, am I supposed to be that person in your life? The person who prays till the fear stops?”
There are some loads we cannot carry alone. I accepted her offer. I let go of my pills and trusted God to answer her prayers. When I did, I slept like a baby, and the terrors never returned.
Another friend, Joy MacKenzie, made me a promise. “If you stay alive, if you make it through chemotherapy, I will take you to the Cayman Islands.” She was good on her word. As soon as chemo was finished---I was still a little woozy---she bought tickets, and we flew to Grand Cayman.
That trip was the repair shop that restored my ability to focus.
Before my mastectomy, year of chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery, I wasn’t the world’s most caring, nurturing, do-unto-others, love-your-neighbor-as-yourself kind of person (although I would feed someone’s cat if asked). But during this struggle, I began to find a new empathy that I had never felt before. For cancer patients, of course. But also for angry doctors who secretly carry a heavy load of accountability for a patient’s life. For nurses who cry at night for patients they’ve lost. For hospital visitors who pray a loud prayer and pronounce you healed---whether you are or aren’t---and sincerely believe they have given you a gift. And for anyone struggling, whether a mother with a disabled child or a teen who has lost her way.
I started keeping a journal. Only cancer could have caused me to do that. My last experience with writing had been in high school when the teacher waved my work in front of the class as an example of how not to write. Though certain I was no writer, I wrote because I didn’t know if I would survive. I wanted my daughters to have something in their hands that would preserve my last days for them.
Several years after the breast cancer, a good friend said, “You know, we ought to tell your story. I often ghostwrite stories. Your story would give many people hope.” The friend was Jerry Jenkins, who went on to coauthor the Left Behind series.
“Oh, I hate to show you my journal,” I told him. “I’ve never written anything.”
“Let me see it,” he encouraged. Then he looked at it and said, “You need an agent.” Shortly thereafter, he introduced me to one.
The result was my first book, I’m Alive and the Doctor’s Dead. The book was a success, but I was certain that was a fluke. Yet, I’ve written other books, some by myself and some with Gloria Gaither, and they’ve all been successful. Then came award-winning children’s books and a humorous line of greeting cards about dysfunction, hot flashes, chemotherapy, and---yes!---throwing spitballs in church.
The books put me out there as a speaker, first to secular audiences. I could not have chosen that role. I never looked at a speaker and said, “Oh, I’d like to be a speaker.” I’d sooner be an astronaut than a speaker. But there I was, following speakers such as Joan Lunden. And then I began to get calls about speaking to Christians. I said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I can’t do that. There are so many good Christian speakers.”
God, I prayed, I just don’t want to do this. I’m not very good at it.
I felt as though the Lord said to me in my spirit, Well, if you were going to do one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I wondered, What would I like to do? I’d like to make people laugh. People carry such heavy burdens, so just for a few minutes I’d like to help them get their minds off their burdens and let them laugh.
Then that little voice said, You have the opportunity to do just that!
From that point on, I’ve spoken to both the secular and the Christian world. Everywhere I go, I share what God has taught me about reclaiming our lives, our future, and our faith after a crisis.
God doesn’t need me to write or speak or talk to people on planes about Him, but He sure wants me to. He wants me to be His person, His representative. And I know that I’m not qualified for anything, except as His person. As time has gone on, it has become easy for me to share my faith with people.
I once visited Davis, California, the self-proclaimed most liberal community in the United States. Everyone there is highly intellectual---off the chart. The town’s four bookstores contain all the books you might want about goddesses and magic.
I stopped in a store and met some adorable young women. We hit it off right away. One of them told me about some oil you can hold in your hand and find spiritual energy. One girl---probably the funkiest of all with a big tattoo on her back, dressed in black with black spiked hair, and lots of piercings, but cute as a bug---asked me what I spoke about,
I said, “I speak about reclaiming your life after a crisis.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I have been there.” Then she asked, “What do you tell them?”
I said, “I talk to people about reclaiming their lives in increments. You reclaim your health, your sense of humor, your family, your friends, and your faith.”
And then I stopped.
She said, “Faith? I’ve never had a faith. I’ve never had a faith. Just recently I decided because I have a little child, I need to have a faith. You’ll never believe it---I can barely bring this out of my mouth---I went to a Baptist church two weeks ago.”
I smiled and said, “Oh, I am so excited for you! God is pursuing you. The fact that I am here this very minute and have come into your life, tells me that you are on the right path, and He wants to know you and He wants you to know Him. It’s the greatest adventure of your life!”
She got excited because I was excited. As a result, I was able to talk to her a little bit about the truth and where to find truth. I said, “You are so funky---and so off the charts---and I am too. I have a copy of Scripture called The Message. I’m going to send it to you, and I’m going to send you a couple other things---and my children’s book, I Love You This Much, for your little boy.”
So I sent her a package. In that package were true stories about people who had come to know the Lord from different places, and I sent her a book with a note: “This will show you exactly, step by step, how to find Him.” I wrote a prayer for her that she would come to know Jesus.
This is the epiphany that came to me when I thought I was dying: All God wants is for me to be His person. On that particular day, being His person meant talking to that darling young tattooed, pierced girl, and later sending her what God laid on my heart to send.
. . . . .
One day, I was driving home from work after a rainstorm when the sun was coming out. I looked up and saw a double rainbow. Even though I was driving on the express- way, even though it was rush hour, I pulled over to the side just to sit there and look at it. Something made me look back, and there, behind me, was a whole line of cars that had pulled over to do just what I was doing.
I wonder what they’ve been through, I asked myself Have they had cancer? What tuned them in to the little signals of God’s presence and care?
. . . .
My mind drifts back to Daddy’s final days. Even though he had a year of dreadful suffering, his last day on earth was a bright and shining moment in my memory. The sun streamed through the windows of the back bedroom where he lay racked with pain, weighing less than sixty-five pounds. His last words to me were: “It’s so beautiful!” His eyes were shut, so I knew he was seeing something I couldn’t see.
I left the room and walked to the kitchen door. I gazed out, looking upward at the steep hill immediately behind the house. A light rain now took the place of the sunshine. Before me was a mysterious path of yellow rose petals stretching up the slope as far as I could see. This is strange, I thought. There are no rosebushes nearby. Where did this come from? I opened the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. The fragrance of roses was overwhelming, as was the peace that blanketed my spirit.
When I returned Daddy was gone. But his last words remain with me: “It’s so beautiful!”
I close my eyes as well, and I realize that the party isn’t here. The real party is somewhere else. .(29-40)
. . . .
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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Twenty years after her experience of cancer, Sue Buchanan (Undergraduate School 1957—58) continues to bring hope, humor, and encouragement to people in crisis through her books and her speaking engagements. She and her husband, Wayne (former director of Moody Bible Institute’s Correspondence School), make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. You may learn more about her and her ministty through her Website, www.suebue.com
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