In April, Susie Kliewer of rural Hillsboro scheduled an appointment to see her medical provider after recognizing an irregularity in her left breast.
“I noticed that one of my nipples was inverted, which is a sign of a potential issue,” Kliewer said.
A mammogram, followed by an ultrasound, indicated a possible malignancy in the left breast, and the biopsy that followed confirmed she had cancer. Kliewer’s next appointment was with the breast-care specialist, who examined both breasts and also found a lump on the right side.
“But she did an ultrasound right there in the office and didn’t see anything.” Kliewer said.
The follow-up breast MRI also was clear.
“Initially they thought, because of the kind of cancer, that there would likely not be any lymph node involvement,” Kliewer said about the diagnosis.
A simple mastectomy, which doesn’t involve the chest wall muscles, was conducted June 23. Cancer cells were found in three of the 10 nodes removed, so the oncologist recommended that Kliewer undergo chemotherapy—six treatments, three weeks apart.
“Because there was some cancer in the lymph nodes, they’re afraid there might be an errant cell somewhere,” she said.
With the possibility that cancer cells may have escaped the nodes, Kliewer said before her chemo started, she received a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which uses a dye with radioactive tracers that checked her body from the neck to her thigh.
“Everything was clear,” she said. “As far as we know, I’m cancer free, and I am very grateful.”
According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will experience breast cancer in their lifetime. And it estimates that in 2016 nearly 250,000 new cases of invasive and 61,000 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States.
Now a cancer survivor, Kliewer has chosen to be open about her journey.
“I remember that at the start of this whole process thinking that whatever happens, I still want to be me,” she said.
Every three weeks, Kliewer said she goes through “chemo week,” which includes extensive lab work on Monday, an appointment with the oncologist on Tuesday and, provided everything looks good, about a four-hour chemo treatment on Thursday at the McPherson satellite clinic of the Cancer Center of Kansas.
“I take oral steroids the day before, the day of and the day after,” she said. “So then the day of treatment, they start out with a steroid IV, two medications to help prevent nausea, and then two different chemo drugs.”
The chemo drugs are cytoxan and taxotere, which work to slow or stop cell growth that may have spread to other areas of the body.
“I had a portacath put in so they access that, which is very nice for freedom to use my arms during the infusions,” she said.
At the clinic, Kliewer joins others who are receiving chemo treatment.
“It’s a long, skinny room with nine recliners in a U-shape,” she said. “We’re all in this together. So when they have trouble with somebody’s IV, we all know it because they’re working on it.
“If somebody has a new granddaughter, we all look at the pictures. Some people I’ve learned to know and have visited with several times. Sometimes new people are there. But it’s very much a group event.”
Kliewer said 27 hours after chemo is done, she receives Neulasta through an on-body injector at home.
“There’s a series of beeps, and I know I have two minutes to go to the bathroom, get a drink,” she said. “They want you to sit in a chair or lay still in the bed for 45 minutes while that injects. That’s to keep white cell counts up.”
Asked how the treatments affect her, Kliewer said she usually feels pretty good the following day. While nausea is often a side effect, she hasn’t experienced that, for which she said she’s “very, very thankful.”
On Saturday and Sunday, Kliewer said, she gets very light-headed, almost dizzy.
“My heart rate goes up and blood pressure drops,” she added.
On Monday, Kliewer said she returns to McPherson and receives IV fluids that perk her up.
Now more than half way through treatments, Kliewer said, “If I stay on track with lab results, which I have so far, my last (treatment) would be Nov. 17.”
Since beginning her chemotherapy, temperature extremes bother her.
“But I can deal with that,” she said.
Hair loss, another side effect of chemo, began about two weeks after the first treatment.
“I first noticed that in the shower one morning,” she said. “And then I was afraid to shampoo my hair. I was afraid to towel dry it because I didn’t know (what to expect).”
Kliewer said she decided to be proactive and have a “very spur-of-the-moment farewell hair party.” With a group of friends there for support, a friend used a clippers to shave her head.
“We had a few refreshments, prayer and laughter,” she said. “From the hair perspective, it was so empowering. And I was in charge of it. I knew what was happening, when it was happening.”
Kliewer said she continues to draw strength from family, friends and the many people praying for her. Daughters Jocelyn or Meredith have been with her on chemo day, husband Glen gives his support at home and a friend drives Kliewer to treatments.
After working 38 years as a nurse, Kliewer began a new job in July as coordinator and educator for Parents as Teachers.
“This job switch has allowed me more flexibility than when I worked at my clinic job,” she said, adding that her current and past co-workers have been very supportive.
During this journey, Kliewer’s faith in God has been central.
“Meredith gave me Romans 15:13, and it talks about trusting,” Kliewer said. “When you trust, then you have joy and peace.”
Kliewer said she knows that having breast cancer is different for everybody, but she’s willing to share her story with others.
“If anybody has questions, I’m open to talking with them because knowledge is power,” Kliewer said. “Face fear, then you can live.”