When Susie Roden treated herself to a belated birthday massage on Monday morning, it certainly felt relaxing, but also a bit odd — considering she could only lie on her side, not her stomach.
Just 11 days earlier, the president of the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital had endured a partial mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, navigating a third bout with breast cancer that comes exactly 30 years after her first.
And it has only reinforced why she’s dedicated her life’s work to the cause.
Using her own battle to highlight the fight against breast cancer and a desperate need for fundraising, Ms. Roden — who is also the patient navigator of the Ellen Hermanson Breast Center — has helped usher in the “Give Cancer the Boot” campaign, which will benefit the Coalition for Women’s Cancers and partner organization Lucia’s Angels, where she is vice president.
“I am truly the poster child of early detection because, all three times, I caught my cancer,” she said. “And even though right now it sucks, I am one of the true lucky, lucky ones. That’s kind of become my mission: If I can get women to take care of themselves, then I think that’s the reason I have cancer.”
It took years of self-reflection, healing and growth to truly get to this place, Ms. Roden said, thinking back to what now feels like another life. The year was 1990 and she was working as the manager of The Post House restaurant in Southampton. It was fast-paced and perfect for the single 38-year-old, who coaxed her cousin’s wife into getting a free mammogram at the hospital — and then decided to get one herself.
“Never, in a million years, did I think I would have breast cancer,” Ms. Roden said. “She had a family history, so I was kind of doing it for her. And it turned out it was me.”
The diagnosis sent her into a spiral. She was petrified. At that time, people said “the c word” instead of “cancer,” because it was an assumed death sentence. And if she did survive, she never thought a man could love her if she only had one breast.
“It was devastating, and I tried to keep it a secret — and then I ended up having to have three surgeries and feeling pretty sorry for myself,” she said. “After about a year, I said, ‘Okay, you have a choice.’ I wasn’t that spiritual at that time, but I realized that I had to do something. I couldn’t let anybody else go through it alone like I did.”
With help from the East End community, Ms. Roden started a breast cancer coalition, offering support groups and other services for newly diagnosed women and their families. For the first five years, they operated seamlessly — until its own founder was diagnosed with breast cancer yet again.
“It was hard. You can’t believe that it’s going to happen to you again. But at least I knew a little bit about cancer — nothing compared to what I know now,” she said. “At that point, I realized how important it was to be a survivor that was thriving, rather than a survivor that was scared or afraid or not doing well.”
With that mentality, Ms. Roden expanded her efforts into what is now the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, in between three more surgeries and eight weeks of radiation, five days a week.
“The second time around, I had kind of thought, ‘Was I not positive enough?’” she recalled. “Everybody says, ‘Be positive,’ so was I not good enough? This time around, it’s just like, shit happens. It’s not my fault.”
In late January, Ms. Roden visited her doctor for a routine mammogram, now 25 years after her second diagnosis. The results warranted an ultrasound — this time of her left breast, not the right — which led to a biopsy and words she never expected to hear again from her radiologist.
“I’m really sorry,” she told her. “It’s cancer.”
An MRI and an MRI biopsy preceded her surgery on February 11, and so far, Ms. Roden is recovering beautifully. Medical advancements allowed for reconstruction in the same surgery, she said, and once her breasts have healed, she will start radiation.
“They did wonderful things. I’m not looking right now, to tell you the truth, I’m not ready yet. But it’s amazing,” she said. “I’ll have two perky breasts! When I’m on the raft this summer, if you only see perky breasts floating along, that will be me! You’ve got to have a little reward at the end.”
With a 12 percent recurrence rate, Ms. Roden said she is choosing to look at the numbers as “an 88 percent chance that it won’t return, and that’s pretty damn good.”
“I’m shocked at how well I’m doing, and I think the number-one reason is that I did catch it so early,” she said. “I’m not like, ‘Oh wow, this is a piece of cake,’ because this isn’t a piece of cake, and I definitely have visited the dark side, and I have definitely cried and felt so sorry for myself and did the ‘Why me?’
“But I am so fortunate,” she continued. “With the help of a lot of people, we have created an unbelievable community.”
As a current beneficiary of the Coalition and Lucia’s Angels — Ms. Roden has not had to cook one meal since her surgery, thanks to drop-offs from volunteers — she is a living example of the work that these organizations do, and their vital importance. When she received the third diagnosis, she knew she had to use her story to help them.
Inspired by the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” she tapped Stacy Quarty — president of Lucia’s Angels and vice president of the Coalition — for the “Give Cancer the Boot” fundraiser, which is currently collecting donations online at luciasangels.org/kick and, soon, in local eateries. Just look out for bedazzled boots for customers to drop their change.
“Stacy’s dream is that, once I’m done with treatment, I will be wearing shiny, glittery pink boots and kicking a ball to the curb, which will be like kicking cancer to the curb,” Ms. Roden said. “My dream is, then, to have other people in the community send us videos of them kicking cancer to the curb. It’s not just about me and it’s not just about survivors. Everybody knows somebody who’s affected by cancer, much less breast cancer.”
In the days ahead, Ms. Roden said she plans to follow the practices she preaches: stay positive, focus on self-care, accept help from friends and family, and conquer cancer.
“Last time around with radiation, I did not miss a minute of work. I had to prove to everyone and especially to myself that I am tough, I can do it. And now, this time around, if I’m tired, I’m going home,” she said. “I’m gonna treat myself like I would treat a loved one — and that’s where we make the mistake. I think two of the most important things we can do is to forgive ourselves and to love ourselves. If a woman can take that away from this story, it’s a success.”
Every day, Ms. Roden reads a quote she has stuck to her refrigerator at home in Hampton Bays for inspiration. It reads, “Fear has two meanings: forget everything and run, or face everything and rise. The choice is yours.”
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I run. I run as fast as I can,” she said. “But I’m not doing that. I’m rising.”