Libby Wiersema Staff Writer
In every lifetime comes at least one defining catalyst, that single, stunning moment where we suddenly find ourselves straddling two world-one comfortably familiar, the other, frighteningly unknown.
That's were a Florence woman found herself on the morning of Sept. 29, 1998. A few carefully chosen words from Susan Hobson's physician were all it took to transport her into the realm of her own personal twilight zone.
"I don't want to be the one to have to tell you this," the doctor said to here, "but you have breast cancer."
It was the very last thing that Hobson ever thought she would hear.
"At first, I couldn't say anything I was so shocked," said Hobson, who, at the time was an energetic 37-year-old mother of two young children. "After that, my husband and I broke down and cried. It was sinking in pretty quickly that this was real."
Hobson had every reason to be surprised by the diagnosis. A real stickler when it came to following healthcare protocol, she had regular check-ups and performed breast examinations on a monthly basis.
She ate well, had no family history of breast cancer, and was still a few years away from that hallmark age of 40, which typically heralds the time of life when women become more susceptible to such diseases.
"I had always been told to have a baseline mammogram at age 40 because it is rare to see breast cancer before that," said Hobson. "Now, when I go to the local pharmacy and see displays explaining who is at risk for breast cancer, I think about all the women, like myself, who develop a false sense of security because they don't fit into any of the categories."
Indeed, when Hobson first felt the lump In her left breast during a self-examination, she was sure the"gushy egg-like'growth was nothing more than an annoying cyst. To play it safe, however, she decided to set an appointment right away with her gynecologist. Hobson soon learned that the business of medicine can sometimes supersede the well-being of the patient.
"When I called the doctor's office, I explained to the appointment clerk that I had just found a lump in my breast, and wanted to have it checked right away," Hobson recalled. "When she told me I would have to wait three months for an appointment, I was floored. But, the clerk reassured me that it sounded like a simple cyst, so once again I was lulled into thinking it couldn't be serious."
So, in the ensuing weeks, Hobson put the episode out of her mind, and went about her normal routine that included her job as a draftsman for a Pee Dee lumber company. By the time her September appointment finally rolled around, she was totally unprepared for her doctor's reaction.
"Why did you wait so long to get in here and have this checked?" the physician admonished her after examining the lump.
"I couldn't believe my ears, and I got very angry because it was his own employee who made the judgement call," said Hobson. "We just assume that these people are trained, and are following the instructions of their employer. But at that point, I discovered I had more pressing issues to deal with."
Hobson's doctor didn't hide the fact that he was disturbed by what he saw and immediately ordered a mammogram. Two days later, Hobson was referred to a reputable surgeon for biopsy.
"My mind was in a whirlwind," remembered Hobson. "I walked in, talked to the surgeon, and was whisked away for the biopsy. I will admit that somewhere inside a little red flag went up when the doctor said he had already alerted a pathologist to be on standby for the tissue sample. Still, the element of denial was very much alive within me."
The next thing Hobson knew, she and her husband were sitting in the surgeon's office as he delivered the grim diagnosis.
"Everybody's going to eventually go through something that is so profound you begin to measure your life by that event," said Hobson. "For me, in that one moment, it became 'before breast cancer' and 'after breast cancer'. That's how I think of my life, so far: Everything about life changes when your doctor delivers those few, very serious words."
Hobson now found herself struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy as she mulled over some very serious thoughts of her own. Would she have her breast removed, or opt for a less traumatic lumpectomy? Would she continue to work? Would she see her children graduate college? Would she see them marry?
After a lengthy meeting with the surgeon. Hobson decided that she would like to have the growth, which tests revealed to be a double tumor, removed via lumpectomy, a procedure by which the lump is excised and the breast is left relatively intact.
It was agreed, however that should the surgeon be unable to "get a clean margin" or in other words, completely excise all of the malignancy, a mastectomy would be performed immediately.
The day of surgery arrived, and, as she sunk into the dark and silent world of the anesthetic, Hobson didn't know what she would face upon resurfacing.
"You don't really think about what your breasts mean to you until you risk losing them," said Hobson. "But, a woman is really defined by that part of the body. Though most people are uncomfortable speaking about this issue, I think it is vital to acknowledge that my breasts were important to my womanhood. My husband appreciated them, and I used to joke around and tell him that is anything happened to my breasts, our marriage would be over."
The Hobson's intimate jesting didn't seem very humorous on the day Susan submitted to surgery and awakened with a scarred and flattened chest. The cancer had progressed further than suspected, and so the alternate plan of action had been carried out.
"Again, the fact that I never thought I would really wake up without my breast served as proof of the state of denial I had wrapped myself in," said Hobson. "I was in total disbelief, but my dear husband was very supportive, and he never even flinched as he cared for me."
Though the surgery was over, the Hobson household would continue to operate in a state of unwelcome suspense - It would be two more weeks before the results of the pathology report would reveal if four lymph nodes that were also removed showed any signs of cancer.
Despite all of her disappointments, the good news that Hobson hungered for continued to illude her. When one lymph node showed malignancy, Hobson's doctor told her to prepare for full treatment. Chemotherapy was about to become a routine word in the Hobson daily vocabulary.
Next week, the Hobson's learn firsthand all about chemotherapy radiation, and an innovative surgery, pioneered by one of Florence's native sons, that would offer Susan the chance for the new breast.
That's how I think of my life, so far. Everything about life changes when your doctor delivers those few, very serious words Susan Hobson
What is your risk of developing Breast Cancer?
By age 25 - one in 19,608 By age 30 - one in 2,525 By age 35 - one in 622 By age 40 - one in 217 By age 45 - one in 93 By age 50 - one in 50 By age 55 - one in 33 By age 60 - one in 24 By age 65 - one in 24 By age 70 - one in 14 By age 75 - one in 11 By age 80 - one in 10 By age 85 - one in 9
By the end of the decade, approximately 1.8 million women and 12,000 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
Approximately 44,000 women and 400 men will die of this disease each year.
Breast cancer is the leading cancer site among American women and is second only to lung cancer in cancer deaths. For women ages 35-54, breast cancer is the leading cause of death.
For more information contact 1-800-I'M AWARE