It takes a village to balance the rigors of treatment with life obligations. How family, friends, and community can come together to help those going through a cancer diagnosis. Today on Real Pink, we have the honor of Susie Christianson sharing her story.
Susie Christianson is the Chief Wavemaker of Shining Sprouts, wherein kids teach kids ordinary life skills to empower them and prevent exhausted moms and dads from parenting power struggles. The kid teachers demonstrate both hard and soft life skills, such as how to put away toys and how to apologize to a friend. Inspired by homeschooling her two young children, Susie tests each lesson with her own sprouts first.
Susie is also a career U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Officer and former professional World Cup circuit triathlete. She has represented the United States as a speaker, athlete, and U.S. Marine Officer in over 15 countries. She developed the first nationally recognized Department of Defense wounded warrior sports program, created the Marine Corps Trials, and led the Marine Corps to three consecutive overall national championship titles at the Warrior Games in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Prince Harry was inspired firsthand at the Warrior Games and subsequently modeled his Invictus Games initiative after the success of her program.
In 2018, while nursing her infant son, Susie was diagnosed with breast cancer. From being shepherded by hundreds of friends, family, and strangers to recovering from the brink of death, she now shares the silver lining—the life lessons from her journey. She delights in gratitude for every-day experiences that combine teaching parents and children the same life lessons and skills she joyfully cultivates with her own children.
From Susan G Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room. On today’s show, we’re going to talk about the power of community.
It takes a village to balance the rigors of treatment with life obligations, how family, friends and community can come together to help those going through a cancer diagnosis. To talk today, we have Susie Christianson. Susie, welcome to the show.
Thanks Adam. It’s great to be here with you.
I’m so excited to talk with you. I really appreciate your time today. So tell us a little bit about yourself and tell us a little bit about your breast cancer journey.
Well I’m a mom. I’m a wife, a sister, a friend, a child of God, and my breast cancer journey two years ago, right around this time took me by complete surprise as it does everyone. No one thinks it’s going to actually happen to them, but it did. And I hadn’t really known anyone who’d had breast cancer or anyone close who had, had had cancer, at least in close proximity to me. But I did have two friends who died of different types of cancer in the past few years. But again, I wasn’t physically near them, so I wasn’t able to do much for them. And all I knew it was the end result wasn’t good. And so when I first found the lump, it was Saturday night at eight o’clock, I was nursing my son to sleep.
He was one year old and I just kind of re-positioned my breast a little bit to have him latch properly and I felt what felt like rock candy in my breast. And that’s the best way I can describe it. It’s kinda like these crystallized little, little stones. Right. And I called my husband right away and I said, Hey I have breast cancer. And he was like, what? It was like, you know, 10 seconds after. And I was like, yeah, like it’s right here and here’s my son nursing. And, and I’m just like, okay, like w what does this mean? What do I even do about this? Is it safe for him to keep nursing? And, and my husband says, you, you don’t know if you have breast cancer. We have no idea what this is. And, and I said, I’m telling you, I have never felt this thing before. And I know that’s what it is. It’s too hard not to be right. So it just kind of it shook my foundation that night and of course it’s not emergency as in go to the ER emergency. So I had to wait until Monday morning, which was pretty hard. And at eight o’clock, exactly. I called the doctor and said, I got breast cancer. I need to come in. And they said, well, we don’t, you don’t know.
And so I went in and the doctor, it was not my regular doctor. She said, well, you know, this could just be mastitis. You could just be having you know, some clogged milk ducks and some thickness in your breast tissue from, from nursing. And I said, this is not mastitis. I’ve nursed for a collective two-plus years with my children and this is not it. So she said, well, we can just put you in on antibiotics or if you’re really, you know, feel strongly about wanting to check out and see if it’s breast cancer, then we can refer you out. And I said, yes, please. Yeah. So that’s kinda how it all began. And it’s been an interesting journey since then.
Well, I mean, you know, I’m, I’m glad that you, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of guests about knowing your body and listening to your gut. And it sounds like you knew your body well enough to know that this was new, this was different, this was not right. And you trusted your gut enough to push when people told you, Hey, don’t push. Right. So I know you live in a small town in Colorado. You’ve got two young children. Your husband has a, is a chiropractor, owns his own business. So what did the diagnosis mean for you, you and your family?
Great question. You know, we have no family near us. A nearest, you know, mom, dad, or aunt or uncle is 3000 miles away. And so we literally didn’t have anybody to lean on. And being a Marine Corps reserve officer, I called my Colonel, actually I called him in about 11 at night and I said, criminal Ramos, I’ve got breast cancer. I know I’m going to be diagnosed with this on Friday. They just have to prove it in the biopsy. He stayed real calm and he just said, okay, Susie, I’m going to remove you from all of your duties and you can just focus completely on whatever you need to do for yourself to get healthy. And I was so relieved because I just, I didn’t know what it would mean for my Marine Corps job or anything like that. And I was so grateful.
Well, following that, when I started to go through chemo and being a stay at home mom and with my husband when he started to come to appointments with me and we need to hire childcare for the kids and we started losing money in the business because he wasn’t able to see as many patients. Right. And then we’re also paying extra money for childcare. And it just started to add up and then the fear of the unknown, is this going to kill me? It just, it became crippling. And so basically what happened is our, our church family was incredible. And my husband called the pastor and said, Hey is there any way your wife could maybe help us figure out some ladies in the church that could watch the kids during the day so that my wife can go to her appointments and not be stressed out and we will kind of bleed out financially, you know, or at least cushion the blow.
And so Dana Thomas came over and she sat me down and she said, Susie, I know, I know this is going to be really hard and I know that you like to be in control and you’re not going to like this. And she said it was the most love and, and gentle spirit that she had, but she said they’re going to come and pick up the kids at eight in the morning and they’re going to return them to you. At 6:00 PM each day. And I said, well where are they going? Whose house are they going to be at? Are they going to be able to take a nap? Is there dogs or cats? There? Are there other kids? Are there hazards? Cause they would be going to a different, a different family each day. And she said, it’s okay. I know every single parent or mother that’s going to be helping who has volunteered and they all have children and it’s going to be okay. And it was like, I hated hearing that. Because I was such a, and I still am, I’m very protective over my children, but I kind of realized in that moment that I was going to have to give up control. And it was a huge moment for me where I couldn’t make it work on my own.
I mean, and I think what I’m hearing you say in that story is that when you do have a cancer diagnosis there, there are things you can control and there are things that honestly you just have to let go of. And, and it sounds like that was one of those things that was really hard to let go, but I would imagine was a pretty big blessing when you did. Right.
It was a huge blessing because I was a, I was going to three or four or five appointments a week for, from everything from chemo and cancer evaluations to mental health. What else is going on? Crazy vision stuff. Just all kinds of weird stuff came up and I knew that my kids would be okay subsequent to that, that just couldn’t last forever because all these mothers from the church, they had their own lives and their own children and that wasn’t the norm for them. So we were trying to figure out if there was a way we could actually hire out like a nanny or some babysitting, but we just didn’t have the funds to do that. So one of my amazing friends from college named Shannon, she got together with some of my other friends that she didn’t even know and said, Hey, we need to help Susie.
She initiated a Go Fund Me that had a goal to raise enough money to provide us with an a live-in nanny for an entire year because the treatment was to last an entire year. That’s great. We were just, we were just blown away with the thought that she would do something, you know, so loving and so kind. And she lived halfway across the country, a completely different state and it was nowhere near us. And what happened is she ended up using social media to kind of pull all of my friends together and then she got all of my college teammates to donate separate from the GoFund me and collected that money separately and sent me a check. And we ended up raising over $12,000 for the live-in nanny. That’s fantastic. Yeah, it was, it was amazing. We were blown away. We didn’t, we couldn’t even believe it even, I mean, some of my Marine friends donated, the kernels pitched it.
I mean it was just, it was crazy. And then on top of that since the live-in nanny cost about 25K total, the Semper Fi fund, which is a leading kind of rescue fund for wounded warriors on the Marine Corps side. They came in and they knew me from my past of building and running the wounded warrior sports program in the Marine Corps. And they said, okay, what do you need? And they pitched in to help us get a lot closer to where we needed to be so that we could get that live in nanny. And I just can’t, I just, we can never say enough. Thank you for all these people with huge hearts that helped us get through.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. I mean, it takes a community to support and to help and to come alongside. Related to that, what advice would you give to someone that might find themselves in a similar situation to yours that needs to accept help no matter how hard that help might be for them to accept?
You know, it’s a tough question to answer, but when I think about it, think about the thing that you fear losing the most. You know, if someone’s just newly diagnosed with breast cancer, which in my case was my kids, not that I would lose my kids, but that my kids would lose their mother because think of the worst possible scenario and then figure out how to be resourceful and say, okay, what do I need to do to make this work so I can protect that thing that I fear being taken away? What do I need to do? And I knew I couldn’t just balk at breast cancer treatment and chemo and surgeries and possible radiation and whatever I would need. I knew that to be alive, I absolutely had to do that. And so as hard as it is to say, but somebody newly diagnosed or just listening to this podcast or they know someone, figure out where their pain points are and see what you can do to help them brainstorm possible solutions and speak in the most kindest, loving way.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And I love how you thought about that because if you compare your children, losing their mother with your children, not being in your home from eight to six every day, like you know, you’re not, you’re letting your kids not be in your home from eight to six every day is a very hard thing that would be very hard for my family. But, but when you compare it to a parent, there’s just no comparison. Right. And so I think that it does, it frames your perspective in such a great way. So I’m, I’m really glad that you shared that. And so what advice do you have for listeners with a loved one that’s going through a cancer journey? How can they best help support that person?
You know, everybody’s a little bit different. I know that one of my friends who was diagnosed, she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to share anything. She was completely quiet, didn’t mention a thing on social media. It was like you would never know. And then I have other friends who were very vocal about it. Everybody’s different. So if someone’s just newly diagnosed, find out where they are right now and how they need to approach it. Right. One of the common things that people say to two women with cancer or anyone with cancer is, is fight. You can do this. Keep fighting. Well that word to me, it just made me cringe and want to punch somebody in the face because I had no fight in me. I was, I was so depleted. I had lost 35 pounds in two months and I couldn’t even pick up my kids.
I had no energy. There was, there was no fight. I just laid around, you know, like I could listen to music, I could go on the internet, I could watch TV shows, I could read a book. But that was kind of it for me. Right. But other people really were energized by say, you know, by that word fight. So really you’ve got to find out, you know, don’t assume that you know, even if it’s your best friend. Exactly what they need. That’s right. And if the person who just got diagnosed says, I don’t even know what I need, which is often what people will say because I didn’t know what I needed at first. Just keep following, keep paying attention, maybe bring them a meal, see if that was helpful. Maybe give them a card and maybe offer to watch their kids, maybe offer to clean their bathroom, little things. And you can kind of figure that out.
I love that approach. I mean, because, because what you’re saying is number one, not every cancer, every, not every person with cancer response to the same thing in the same way. Right. And I think we probably know that fundamentally, but it’s hard to remember that in those moments. And so I think that’s a really helpful thing is just know like, learn that person, learn what their needs are.
So last question: What are some things you learned through your breast cancer journey? Were there any silver linings or clarity that you found that might be helpful to others?
Oh goodness. You know, despite it being, it was absolutely horrific. The process, chemo in particular for me, I thought it was going to kill me itself, but through it all I was truly grateful to God. And I just remember saying, God, will you please, please, please, I’d like begging, will you please let me live through this so I can be a mom to my kids so I can raise them. So my husband’s not quitting his job and we’re doing fundraising and trying to figure all this out for a lifetime, how to raise kids. I just, I remember pleading with him and I remember relying on, not myself anymore. So let it go of that control. Kind of going back to one of your first questions and remembering, okay, this is out of my control. Let me figure out what I can do. And it was somewhat freeing for me. And I dare say that because I had no control, but it brought it down to where I had so little. We had so little financially, we had so little in terms of physical belongings, but we had a roof over our head and we lived small and we had amazing friends that it was like when you kind of don’t have a lot to lose, then you can kind of be in a place of gratitude.
Mm. Well Susie, this has been great. Your story is really fantastic. Very inspiring and in particular how you were able to accept help even though it was difficult. And so if for our listeners, if you find yourself with breast cancer or with, or with somebody in your life that has breast cancer, just know that accepting help is not always easy. But it’s always helpful. And so you might consider that for yourself. Susie, thanks for joining me on the show.
Thanks so much, Adam.
Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit real pink.com and.org for more on breast cancer. Visit komen.org make sure to check out at @susangkomen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @ajwalker or on my blog, adamjwalker.com
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