From battle, a blessing: Cancer survivor volunteers, gives hope to others

LAWRENCEVILLE - Nearly six years ago, Susan Little got a phone call that changed her life.

On Nov. 10, 2003, at exactly 9:02 a.m., she was making her bed when her doctor called with the awful news that she had breast cancer. The disease runs in her family, but at just 35 years old, Little had only been screened as a precaution.

The mother of two daughters, Little was a labor and delivery nurse at Emory Eastside Medical Center. Even as a health care professional, the words left her frozen.

"It was a big blow ... surreal, really," she said. "I mean, it was devastating."

Fortunately for Little, the cancer was in its early stages. The decision she and her doctor made to begin early screening may have saved her life.

After mulling over two treatment options - including several weeks of radiation - she decided to have a mastectomy.

Post-procedure and cancer-free, Little began doing whatever she could to help spread the word and raise awareness about the all-too-familiar disease.

"It's funny when something happens to you, you always want to give back," she said. "Even though (cancer) was in my family, I never really did anything."

Months later at an American Red Cross Relay for Life event, Little casually mentioned to a friend that she wouldn't mind volunteering in the hospital's breast center if something came up.

It took three years, but something came up. Emory decided it needed a breast cancer navigator on board; someone to walk alongside women during their battle.

As a breast health coordinator, Little helps those diagnosed any way she can. Whether it's educating them on the disease, discussing their options or being a shoulder to lean on (or a Facebook friend), she's there. She doesn't always advertise her survivorship, but believes some women benefit from knowing.

"I like to think that I can somehow relate to patients," she said. "It's good for them to know that there is someone who is on their side, in their shoes and on their health care team."

That team is a broad one, Little said, consisting of physicians, Cancer Society members and support groups.

She says she's just one part of a combined effort to educate and support every woman who doesn't want to fight alone.

In March, doctors found something in Little's other breast that concerned them. A precancer, she said. Not malignant, but with a high probability of becoming so one day.

Without hesitation, she had a second mastectomy to "just be done with it."

Little knows there's no guarantee that there will never be a recurrence, but looks in the rearview when describing her bout with cancer as "a season that came and went."

The shock of that phone call, however, will stick with her always. It made her who she is.

She appreciates life and enjoys the little things. The sun, the rain. Taking each day as it comes.

And filling those days by giving perhaps the greatest gift of all: hope.

"I just want to help them see that it's been six years and I'm doing fine," Little said. "That there is light at the end of the tunnel; life after breast cancer."

SideBar: If you help

Various organizations in and around Gwinnett will be holding events to raise awareness of breast cancer and collect money to support ongoing research of the disease this month and beyond.

· Mill Creek High School will hold Pink Week, a weeklong effort to raise money in support of Relay for Life with the American Cancer Society. Gwinnett residents can get involved by donning pink for the Oct. 9 match-up between Mill Creek's varsity football team and Peachtree Ridge High School. The game is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. and admission is $7. Donations will be collected during the game.

· The Atlanta Breast Cancer 3-Day will kick off Oct. 17 to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, while raising awareness of breast cancer as runners and walkers from throughout the state join together to travel 60 miles on foot for the cause.

· For those who want to run or walk locally, Gwinnett residents can lace up their sneakers for the Rock 'n Rib Run for Breast Cancer 5K on Oct. 17 in downtown Lawrenceville. Registration is $30 and proceeds will benefit the Komen Foundation.

· Gwinnett residents can also donate to the American Cancer Society by visiting www.cancer.org or calling 1-800-ACS-2345.

· The American Cancer's Society's 35th annual Crusader's Ball will follow in November. This year's event will feature a live dance competition in the Gwinnett Center's Grand Ballroom on Nov. 14.

If you check

Early detection

Any woman can develop breast cancer. Many types of breast cancer can be treated successfully, but the chances for success are highest when cancers are found early. The American Cancer Society offers up these three steps to detecting cancer early.

· Step 1: Mammograms - Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40.

· Step 2: Breast exam - Breast exams conducted by a doctor or nurse should be part of a health exam about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for those 40 and older.

· Step 3: Breast self-awareness - Be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel and report any changes promptly to a doctor or nurse. Breast self-exams include checking for lumps, thickness or other changes and the American Cancer Society recommends self-exams once a month. A doctor or nurse can demonstrate how to correctly perform a self-exam. When doing a breast self-exam, check each breast all over as well as both armpits.

Performing a self-exam

Using the pads of your fingertips, move them over your breasts in a small, circular motion using different amounts of pressure, light, medium and deep, to feel the entire breast. Look at your breasts in front of a mirror to check for any changes in appearance or dimpling of the skin. If you think you have found a lump or see a change, visit your doctor. Most breast changes are not cancer, but you won't know if you don't ask.

Five things to tell your friends about breast cancer

1, All women can develop breast cancer, even those who have no family history of the disease.

2. The two most important risk factors for developing breast cancer are being a woman and growing older.

3. Women diagnosed with breast cancer early, when the cancer is small and has not spread, have a high chance of surviving.

4. Women can help reduce their chances of developing breast cancer by engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol intake.

5. Through early detection and improved treatments, more women than ever are surviving breast cancer.

- Courtesy of the

American Cancer Society