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Modesto cancer survivor gives thanks for a new lease on life this Christmas

Last Christmas, Susan Conway managed to joke about the two bald people in the room — her first grandchild, born Dec. 15, and herself. She had a C-shaped scar on the side of her head from surgery a month earlier to remove a brain tumor.

A big question remained: Would she be around for another Christmas?

Earlier this month, after a year of recovery and chemotherapy, she got some very good news.

"Seven words: No evidence of tumor recurrence or residual," Conway said. "A miracle, really."

She and her husband, Mark, credit her medical team, God and the prayers of many people for that news, and look forward to another Christmas with their family. Their son Greg and his wife, Trisha, will be there with their daughter, Gwyneth, now 1. And their oldest son, Matthew, a pastor in Taiwan, will come with his wife, Sherry, who is pregnant with their first child.

The entire story is one of new life, said Susan, co-owner of Ragamuffin, a children's boutique in McHenry Village in Modesto.

In August 2008, she said she began noticing small things, such as the tingling in two fingers on her left hand.

"I thought, 'I have to quit squeezing those weights in the gym,' " Susan said. "I've always taken good care of myself. I thought it would go away."

But the tingling spread, down the left side to her foot. Then one day in October, "I was in my store waiting on a customer and my speech started getting strange; I was mumbling," she said. "I went right away to my doctor."

The next day, she had an MRI brain scan.

"My doctor called me back at 8:30 a.m. the next day and said, 'I just got your results back. I can't believe it. You have a brain tumor.' "

"What a shock," Susan said. "What do you do? (Mark and I) got on our knees and prayed."

The scan showed a rather large tumor, about 2½ inches in diameter, sprawling in an irregular shape. Doctors thought it was fast-growing, and perhaps a Grade II or III (IV being the highest) — not a good thing.

"It was above my right eye, so it was affecting the left side of my body," Susan said. "The temporal lobe affects speech, senses, reasoning."

She was referred to a Sacramento neurosurgeon. Susan said she's the type of person who would scope out various doctors, research each one and pick the one that she thought would be best for her. Not this time.

"Who knows a brain surgeon, for crying out loud? I was feeling really frightened out there," she said. "I called the scheduling nurse and she said, 'We can't get you in for two weeks.' I said, 'This is a brain tumor. Can't we get in sooner?' "

The nurse said no, but called two days later with an earlier opening on Nov. 4. Susan and Mark liked the neurosurgeon immediately and agreed to the surgery he proposed. But they hit the scheduling problem again — nothing available until January.

"I thought, this is unreal," Susan said. "Is everyone having brain surgery?"

They told the nurse they could be in Sacramento in an hour and a half if anything opened up. On their way home, the nurse called and said the surgery could be done the day before Thanksgiving.

"It was reassuring for us to see God's hand in everything," Susan said.

Other "God things" she has seen include:

Susan teaches the high schoolers in the women's Bible Study Fellowship evening class in Modesto. She taught a lesson two days before her surgery about Moses being up on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights getting the Ten Commandments from God. The class prayed that she would be able to return to teach their first lesson in January.

She was. It was exactly 40 days after her surgery.

She had read about her surgeon and wore a shirt that said "New York" into the hospital on the day of surgery. He asked why she had worn it. She said, "I know that you did your residency in New York and I just wanted you to know I have full confidence in you." He replied, "Yes. I did my residency at Mount Sinai (hospital)."

Her oncologist is Dr. Ark. "She was given to me the week we learned about the Israelites moving out with the ark of the covenant," Susan said.

"It's just so amazing," she said. "I was really seeing how God had changed a medical journey into a spiritual journey. It was so good for God to show up for me in that way."

She told her pre-op nurse that she had a special Bible verse in mind. The nurse said, "Say it out loud and you'll remember it first thing when you wake up." It was Exodus 14:13: "Don't be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today."

"Then it goes on to say, 'The Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still.' Well, what's the hardest thing on earth for a woman to do? Stand still."

It's been one of the biggest lessons of her post-surgery life, said Susan, a self-described Type A personality who moves quickly through life, always busy, always multitasking.

"I have learned how to be still, to not move my life along so quickly," she said. "God has really shown me that the words I have learned from his Scripture are really true, like, 'My grace is sufficient for you.' He never disappoints. He can maybe take me in a direction I didn't know I would go in. But I'm glad I can be still and hear from him and be patient."

She wasn't exactly still after surgery, Mark said.

He and son Greg walked into the recovery room, expecting Susan to be groggy like everyone else. Instead, "She was sitting up in bed, just talking away to all the medical people around her. There were probably 10 other people in recovery, and they were all out of it and moaning. Here she was talking. It just blew me away."

Other immediate signs looked good. The doctor had been able to "vacuum out the tumor," Susan said, a better procedure than cutting it out. He told Mark he thought he had gotten all of it. And Susan was released to go home four days after surgery. "Pretty much all the nursing staff was amazed."

But it was hard to be patient waiting for the pathology report. Because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, it took seven weeks to get the results.

"They were suspecting it was an astrocytoma, which is not a good kind of tumor to have," Susan said. The tumor turned out to be a Grade II oligodendroglioma, which was a much better prognosis.

"Part of the middle of that word is 'God,' " Susan said. "I guess if you have to get a tumor, this is an OK one. It's slow-growing."

Therapy ongoing

The bad news was that the tumor had some astrocytoma cells in it, so since February, Susan has been taking an oral chemotherapy drug specifically developed for brain tumors.

"Every month, I take it for five days," she said. "Of course, it's horrible, but you can endure it. God gives you strength to do it. I probably have two weeks out of the month that I feel high-functioning, when my body doesn't ache in every joint."

She also has MRIs every three months. Those have shown that her brain has "improved" and "stabilized," and that it was slowly shifting back into its original position; it had been squeezed out of place by the tumor.

But recovery from brain surgery is not a breeze, Susan said. For example, sometimes she has "brainstorms" in the affected area — times when brain waves start buzzing like crazy, making her feel frenetic — or she has lapses in memory.

"You take for granted everything in your memory bank — your wedding, your early marriage days, your children. You assume you'll always be able to remember. I don't take it for granted after brain surgery."

Last year, she said, she was bald.

"This year, I have my silver lining, my gray hair. I have an opportunity to live and be in God's plan," she said. "I'm so thankful for that, and for all the prayer support we received. I had a lot of people praying specifically that I wouldn't have a change of personality. You can really get flat-lined with brain surgery. You can actually be flat, less emotional. I've always been a very passionate person. I didn't want to lose that.

"I will probably always have a reminder from God that Super Susan is gone — she's no longer here. But it's true: I have learned how to be still, not so busy."

Said Mark: "This past year started out with shock and devastation and sorrow. ... We look forward to our whole family being together this year, and we are just in awe of what the Lord has done."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or 578-2012.

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