Former patient, caregiver lead Gwinnett's Relay charge

Staff Photo: John Bohn Sheila Fowler, left, and Susan Lee, are area co-chairs of this year's Relay for Life. They are best friends and Sheila served as a close friend and caretaker when Susan had breast cancer in 2008.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Sheila Fowler, left, and Susan Lee, are area co-chairs of this year's Relay for Life. They are best friends and Sheila served as a close friend and caretaker when Susan had breast cancer in 2008.

If you go

What: Gwinnett County Relay for Life

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Gwinnett County Fairgounds, 2405 Sugarload Parkway, Lawrenceville

More info: Additional parking and shuttles will be available at the Lawrenceville Church of God (329 Grayson Highway) and the Gwinnett Elections Office (455 Grayson Highway).

LAWRENCEVILLE -- It was on a Caribbean cruise, with more than 20 friends and family members, on a boat called "Destiny," that Susan Lee found something wrong.

Aside from her husband, Sheila Fowler was the only person Lee told.

"The next day, we were on one of the islands," Lee, the Gwinnett DOT's legislative liaison, said recently, nearly four years later. "I don't remember which one, but I leaned over and told her: 'I found a lump.'"

For several days, the best friends -- "They almost seem like twin sisters. They finish each other's sentences," says the American Cancer Society's Linda Cerjan -- island-hopped and went scuba diving with the biggest of secrets and the greatest uncertainty.

"I didn't tell my husband or anyone else," Fowler said. "I really admire her because she was able to put it out of her mind, enjoy her vacation."

But once the trip was over, it was down to business.

Lee -- who, along with Fowler, is a co-chair for this year's Relay for Life -- went to the doctor, and the lump was undetected through both mammogram and ultrasound. Headstrong, knowing something was wrong, she convinced the surgeon to perform a more or less exploratory procedure.

He found it, "like a little tiny bulb on a Christmas tree."

After the discovery came chemotherapy, hair loss (and a wig named Lola), a bilateral mastectomy, radiation and reconstructive surgery.

Fowler, who works for the county's parks and recreation department, was there all along. She and other ladies from a group of friends that has played cards together every month since 2001 took turns joining Lee at her treatments.

"We spent all day long sitting in her bed and watching YouTube and Facebook," Fowler said.

Had Lee not pushed her doctor, it likely would have been months before her tumor was found on a mammogram. That would have been particularly dangerous because Lee, like about 1 of every 5 breast cancer patients, was HER-2 positive.

That means her body is home to a protein that can attach itself to a tumor and make it grow even faster.

"Mine was growing so fast," she said, "I probably would have been Stage IV (if she had waited)."

Fighting back tears -- "We go out to dinner and say the blessing and she cries," Lee needles -- Fowler expressed admiration for her dear friend.

"How many people would take the doctor saying 'everything's fine' and go with it?" she said. "Very few people I know of would have continued to push their doctor like Susan did."

Even during treatment Lee pushed and pushed, to the point of fitting in her final chemotherapy visit on Dec. 23, two days before Christmas. That final treatment, the accumulation of drugs making it the most crippling one, could have easily been pushed back a few days.

But Lee wanted it done.

"You're your best advocate," she said.

For several months now, Lee and Fowler have led the charge for Gwinnett County's Relay for Life, the world's top-grossing fundraiser for a decade straight. Ironically, it's the American Cancer Society that Lee credits with saving her life.

ACS -- which funds everything from cancer research to the Hope Lodge and Look Good, Feel Good programs -- provided healthy support to Dr. Dennis Slamon when he was developing a medicine aimed at killing brain tumors. That same medication, herceptin, turned out to be more effective at treating HER-2 positive breast cancer patients.

"While we've made a lot of strides, we've made a lot of progress fighting cancer," Fowler said, "we've got to do more."

This year's Gwinnett Relay for Life will begin Friday at 7 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.

In 2010, Lee, Fowler and their families decided to take the same Carnival cruise they had embarked on two years prior, when Lee had discovered that life-changing lump.

Before the journey, the boat they had taken on the initial trip -- "Destiny" -- was replaced. Taking its spot was a ship called "Victory."