American poet Emily Dickinson observed that we “never know how high we are till we are called to rise.”
Susan Tallentire, 51, of Granville, Ohio, exemplifies that thought.
When Susan, a fourth-grade teacher at Granville Intermediate School, received the stunning news that she had stage I, grade II, HER2/neu-positive breast cancer, she immediately thought she would die of the disease and began setting milestones to reach before that time came.
“I was sick with anxiety and cried for six days after my diagnosis,” she recalls. “But on the sixth day, I decided that I would not live in fear like this, that I would not wake up each morning and have my first thought be about my cancer. There are too many other important things to think about.”
“Learning you have cancer is ‘such a process of emotions,’ ” she adds. “Tears are first, then comes the strength. All my life, I’ve looked at people with cancer and wondered how they do it, but every person has the strength, and everyone can do it: Eventually, their strength will come. A friend told me that, and she was right.”
What most surprised Susan about her diagnosis was that she had been so vigilant, getting regular mammograms since her 20s because her mother had had premenopausal breast cancer.
After having a mammogram in February 2013, Susan was called back for a second one and for an ultrasound that revealed her cancer. She had a lumpectomy at a central Ohio hospital, then turned to the OSUCCC – James.
“I didn’t have a good feeling about things,” she says, “and I wanted a second opinion, so I made a self-referral to the OSUCCC – James,” where medical oncologist Maryam Lustberg, MD, confirmed the diagnosis and started Susan on what would become four months of chemotherapy and one year of Herceptin as well as radiation therapy.
Susan admits that chemo is difficult.
“It does a number on your body,” she says. “But I never got nervous coming here to receive it. I love this new building (the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center), and everyone here is friendly and helpful, always wanting to know how I’m doing. I once brought a friend who was amazed by how much time was spent talking about my side effects and how to manage them. All my symptoms have been taken very seriously and treated with utmost care. I feel like a celebrity.”
Susan also has drawn strength from the support of her family, including her husband, Tim, her son, Alex and her daughter, Reilly.
“My husband is a rock,” she says. “He never thinks anything’s going to be wrong, so he was absolutely shocked by my diagnosis. And it’s been hard on my kids, especially my daughter, who is still at home and is in the middle of it every day. And my son sometimes feels guilty because he’s been away at school and can’t always be here.”
Her family in turn has been inspired by her ability to be strong and keep going despite it all. She did take a leave from her classroom near the end of the 2012–13 school year, so that her illness and the care she required wouldn’t become a distraction to her students, who, she says, were amazingly supportive but also worried. Otherwise, she has kept herself hopping.
“I’ve never been one to take naps, and I’ve taken only one nap since this whole ordeal began,” she says. “I think it’s important to stay active. My daughter needs to see me out riding my bike, not at home lying on the couch.”
She had all the more reason to board her bike in the summer of 2013, since she had decided to ride in Pelotonia, the annual grassroots bicycle tour that raises money for cancer research at the OSUCCC – James.
“During an appointment with Dr. Lustberg, I read in a magazine about research she was doing with Pelotonia support, so I went in and told her I had just then decided to ride,” Susan recalls. “I’d never raised money for anything before, and I never would have guessed that I would be riding in Pelotonia for myself, but here I was.
“My husband had planned to ride before I did, and when I told him I now wanted to ride too, he worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it. ‘Watch me,’ I said.”
Susan unflinchingly considers herself a cancer survivor, although more in terms of attitude than time.
“At a JamesCare for Life yoga class I attended, someone asked me how many years it would be before I considered myself a survivor, but I said that kind of thinking isn’t for me,” she says. “I’ve never even asked about my prognosis. Knowing it wouldn’t necessarily reassure me, because sometimes I feel there is no rhyme or reason for things.”
“I’m just living,” she adds. “If my cancer does recur, I believe there’ll be something new to treat it, and I’ll be right here, still doing what I’m doing now.”
In other words, rising yet again.