Survivor Spotlight: Dr. Susanne Gollin

How was your breast cancer found?

DR. GOLLIN: Eight years before my diagnosis I was a subject in a cancer genetic study. My mother and my two younger sisters had breast cancer, as well as my maternal great aunt and her daughter, and my father had died of lymphoma. That’s why I went into cancer genetics research. I met with a genetics counselor who suggested that my annual mammogram should be should be diagnostic rather than screening, and that I should have breast MRIs. The third annual MRI saved my life.

In February 2010 I had a mammogram and an MRI. The results of the mammogram were negative but my primary care doctor wanted me to have a biopsy. The doctor said, “I’m 95% confident that you have a small cancer. I’ll biopsy to confirm and then you’ll get it removed and go along your way to continue your exciting research.” She projected a “we can do this” attitude and it set the tone for the entire process.

What was your treatment?

DR. GOLLIN: I decided on a double mastectomy. I chose silicone implants rather than tissue reconstruction, for a variety of reasons, including that I had a genetic predisposition to blood clots. One clot could ruin the entire tissue reconstruction. The tumor was invasive and I concluded that the MRI saved my life, since the mammogram was negative for cancer. I recovered, went back to work in five weeks, and never looked back. I’m grateful for the genetic counselor who educated me about my family history and strategies for early detection.

What do you hope other women learn from you?

DR. GOLLIN: I hope they will meet with their family at reunions or holidays and talk about any history of cancer. They can draw a family tree showing who had cancer and what kind.

Also, women should try to have a friend with them at their appointments. When your doctor talks with you, the stress of the situation can lead to forgetfulness, or altered perception.

What was your support system like?

DR. GOLLIN: My sister came from Miami to keep my husband company during my five-hour surgery, and to keep me company over the next few days. My husband was a remarkable caregiver. It’s so much harder on the family members than it is on the patient. They need support too.

Facebook was a powerful source of support. I floated through the process as though I was a cake crumb being carried by a herd of ants. I envisioned friends in my neighborhood, my congregation, my support group, and my work support group carrying that crumb and it helped me. My philosophy is whatever works. Be positive.

What advice would you give to friends of a woman who was just diagnosed?

Just be there for her. Send her cookies or a little note saying “I’m thinking of you and wondering if I could bring you a bowl of soup.” Send an email saying “I’m on your team.”

Without the PA Breast Cancer Coalition ________.

DR. GOLLIN: Without the PBCC, women in PA wouldn’t have a strong voice for early detection and diagnosis, someone who holds their hands through the process.

My life-saving MRI was covered, but for many women in Pennsylvania, it’s not. I am grateful to the PBCC for fighting to pass Senate Bill 595 for breast MRI and ultrasound coverage to help women whose insurers do not cover them.