When Suzette Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer, she whiled away the hours of chemotherapy knitting hats. She now has more than 150 hats that she hopes to pass on to other cancer patients.
When she showed up at the registration table volunteers asked Suzette Brown if she was a survivor. She was taking part in one of her many volunteer activities – the 2105 “Making Strides for Breast Cancer Walk.” Survivors receive special recognition at the annual walk.
But at this walk, Brown accompanied by her husband Derek, was not a survivor.
“I wasn’t diagnosed but I was waiting on answers. Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt like I might be one of those survivors some day,” said Brown. Two years earlier she had discovered a lump on her right breast. She went for a mammogram and received a diagnosis of a cyst.
“I did what I thought I was suppose to do – report a change in the breast and get it checked by a mammogram. Life went on,” said Brown.
And life was busy. She was an adult college student, studying nursing. She and Derek were high school sweethearts at Pendleton Heights. They were married six months out of high school and had three daughters. Brown worked as an office administrator for 25 years and then started taking college classes hoping to work as a hospice nurse. Throughout her life she was always helping with one project or another – class parent roles and committees, 4-H clubs, Girl Scouts, children and adult outreach church ministry, JR girls camp counselor, leadership boards, mission trips, contact HELP crisis call center – it was who she was.
But as time went on, the cyst on her breast began to change and Brown became concerned. She consulted her sister – Sondra Jones, a nurse with IU Health who encouraged Brown to go in for another mammogram.
“It was beginning to dimple. It just wouldn’t go away and I felt like there was something more there. I was somewhat in denial but knew I had to find out,” said Brown, 52.
She got the results over the phone. Her husband’s father had just passed away and they were in the middle of working on his house. She was 49 and she had breast cancer.
“My husband drove in the driveway and asked what the doctor said. I said ‘I have breast cancer,’ and then I went back to work. I didn’t have time for this. Our youngest was starting college, we were empty nesting, we were in a good place,” said Brown.
Just before she started treatment, her family arranged a photo shoot for Brown, her husband, her mother, three daughters and granddaughter. One photo has Brown posed with pink boxing gloves.
“I had no idea at that point what I was in for. I thought I’d just get treatment and go on with my life,” said Brown. Six months later the same photo was taken and Brown was bald. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were gone and she was more than 20 pounds heavier. Before the diagnosis she was healthy – walking five miles a day. During treatment, she was so tired she used a golf cart to drive around the family’s rural Henry County property.
“When I was diagnosed I was angry. I was annoyed because I work hard to stay healthy. I was too busy to deal with this. I was meeting myself coming and going. If someone had asked me if I could do something I’d say it would have to be between two or three in the morning. I was just always on the go and it was my ‘before cancer normal’ – helping others, and enjoying time with my family, working, college, and investing in my health, and then I got the diagnosis of cancer.”
It was her sister Sondra Jones who told her that cancer slowed her down. “They first thought it was Stage I or II but after the mastectomy they diagnosed it was Stage III,” said Brown. She had 27 lymph nodes removed from her right arm. The cancer was also found in the lymph nodes.
She went through six and a half months of chemotherapy and under the care of IU Health Ball Hospital’s Dr. Yunjie X. Lin, she had 34 rounds of radiation. Six months later, in March of 2017 she went through a 14-hour reconstructive surgery. After her mastectomy she was diagnosed with Lymphedema – swelling in her right arm, chest area and legs caused by the removal of the lymph nodes.
Other surgeries followed in July, October and December 2017. And another in May – all to repair damage caused to Brown’s body from the breast cancer diagnosis and the reconstruction involving Lymphedema – in her chest wall, her abdomen, her back, and her trunk. She now uses a pneumatic compression device (lymphedema pump) to help manage the Lymphedema 68 minutes a day.
“It’s basically like a traffic jam in my system and the pump is redirecting the traffic,” said Brown.
It was when she was going through her chemotherapy and the after effects that she began to knit hats. Holding the soft yarn in her hands and looping the fiber onto a round loom gave her a purpose and kept her busy – a different kind of busy unlike any of the other projects she had managed throughout marriage and motherhood.
“I would often sit out back on the swing and just look out at the cornfields and knit,” said Brown. The family’s 120-year-old homestead sits on five acres. Watching the hummingbirds, and enjoying nature and the simple things in life like resting in the sunshine and breathing in the country air became an integral part of her healing. And while she rested, she knitted. And then she knitted some more. Two years later, she has a box filled with 150 hats – in a rainbow of colors.
The knitting loom was a gift from her sister and the hats – although finished are awaiting a final tie off of their ends. Brown says her sister will help her finish each one, cutting the strings this fall. She wants to add gift cards and a positive note and then give them away to other patients.
“For a long time I didn’t want to give them up because they were symbolic of my journey – every hat is part of that journey,” said Brown. “Now I’m ready to cut the ends and give them away. I’m in a good place.”
And she’s back at it again – volunteering and helping others but this time she’s using her personal experience – her fight with breast cancer – to serve by encouraging others and sharing her story about early detection, creating awareness, and supporting others on their journey.
After driving many miles several times to Indianapolis to share in a cancer support group, Brown started one closer to home. She has about 26 women who have attended the twice-monthly meetings at the Daleville Community Library. “Once Upon a Cure” is for women newly diagnosed with cancer, women going through treatment for cancer, and women who have survived cancer. Each woman has her own personal story to share about her journey and diagnosis.
They come together to tell their stories, ask questions, form new friendships and . . . yes, to learn to knit.
“We have a code word and it’s ‘blink,’” said Brown. “I often send a simple one word text with the word “BLINK” to a cancer survivor which means ‘when you look back at the timeline of your life, this will just be a blink of your eye. Keep blinking.’”
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.