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I Am a Phoenix

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Four-time cancer survivor Susie Lee reflects on a recent unplanned brain surgery, and the road to recovery and healing that awaits

By Susie Lee

With one aggressive swipe of my arm across the kitchen counter, all the glass mason jars I had meant to put away shattered onto the floor. My husband and I had a minor disagreement, but I lost my shit. I had been home for only two days after having surgery to remove a golf-ball-size tumor from my brain, and I could not control my emotions. My inner voice said, Susie, you need to chill out! This is NOT good for recovery! But I was seeing red. I watched the glasses explode into a million pieces in slow motion—half satisfied, half horrified. It felt good to break things, but regret immediately washed over me.

Merely a few days ago, the tumor first appeared on an MRI, explaining why I’d had seizures the week before and lost function over the left side of my body. I couldn’t carry a piece of paper without dropping it; I was useless at household chores. After the surgery, I regained use of my left side and was eager to be productive again, though I should have been resting. On the morning of this tantrum, I was managing my son’s schedule and sifting through all the emails I missed. I wanted to get a headstart on tasks before the next surgery in two weeks; I wanted to finish an essay and attend a meeting with my editor (which I had scheduled), but my body and mind weren’t working at full capacity, and I had clearly pushed myself too far.

After the tornado, my body was stiff, and inflamed. I had my first post-surgery headache, my hips were in pain again, and my leg swelled up. Clearly, this anger did not help my healing. I hobbled to the garage to get the broom and dustpan and started the cleanup. I cried hot tears of shame while I picked up the broken shattered pieces of glass. After I cleaned up, there was no evidence of destruction, other than the effects it had on my body.


Since my latest diagnosis with stage four metastatic breast cancer, on New Year’s Eve 2020, I’d long been accustomed to unrelenting bone pain and emotional exhaustion stemming from the cancer in my neck, chest, spine, and left hip. But in the summer of 2023, I started experiencing more consistent, sharp pain. I was walking crooked, and having increasing difficulty walking short distances. I overcompensated by leaning on my cane, which put extra stress on my good hip. My entire hip and lower spine were lit up with pain. I went from cane, to walker, to wheelchair. I stopped seeing friends. I went to bed early, woke up late, and basically slept all day, drugged up to numb the pain.

Then in July I thought I had a stroke; I lost mobility on my left side of my body. My left arm hung limply with little mobility and I could not control my fingers. I couldn’t press a button, I couldn’t pick anything up, I couldn’t carry anything without dropping it out of my hands. I cried every day out of frustration and anger. I was always so proud of being an independent woman, and now I had to ask my son to help me get dressed.

During a consultation, my doctor said she needed to confirm that I had a stroke, but she suspected a growth, possibly another tumor. She insisted on an MRI, to which I reluctantly submitted. After the procedure, I received a call from the hospital and I begrudgingly answered; it was my doctor. (When a doctor calls me personally, 99% of the time it’s not good news. Naturally, I’ve come to dread those calls.)

“We got the results back from the MRI,” she began, matter-of-factly. “And it looks like a tumor. You need to rush to the emergency room and get it operated on immediately.”

My knee-jerk reaction was defiance, and anger. I hadn’t planned on surgery and I was working myself into a mild hysteria. Surgery today? But I haven’t finished my lunch yet. It’s Labor Day weekend. I”m busy. I haven’t organized my home, I haven’t finished my book. Will I make it out of this surgery? What if I die? What about my son? I hate all of this! I’m so sick of cancer. When will it be enough, God? I cannot do it anymore!

I got off the couch and tried to think of what I needed. I had to keep the tears at bay. I couldn’t afford to fall apart. I needed to pack an overnight bag, which was laughable because I didn’t know if I was going to be there for a night or a week or if I was even coming back at all. I grabbed clean underwear, my toothbrush, lip balm, face oil, a notebook and pen and my charger. As I was leaving the house, I thought, I should have done more. I should have organized the house, I didn’t finish my book, and never sent the check for my taxes. Should I write a letter to my son, just in case? Should I throw out my journals? What about my bag of sex toys? No one needs to find that! Fuck it, if I die, I won’t know or care.

Goodbye, house. Goodbye, my sweet doggy, goodbye.

I couldn’t afford to fall apart. I needed to pack an overnight bag, which was laughable because I didn’t know if I was going to be there for a night or a week or if I was even coming back at all.

On the ride to the emergency room, all I could think of was my 12-year-old son. My husband and I told my brother to pick him up from school and bring him to the hospital. When we arrived in the ER we were inundated with doctors and information. A nurse came to explain what the doctors planned to do, and how the surgery would go. I finally understood the magnitude of the situation and I started to sob uncontrollably. I cried because I was terrified, because I had to make this decision under such emotional duress, because I did not, in fact, have a choice.

I was nervous that I wouldn’t remember anything post-surgery—or, God forbid, that I might not wake up—so I decided that I would document and share on social media every step of the way. I wanted my friends and family to know my story. I asked that at the time of my surgery, everyone either send out a positive thought, prayer, or repeat my mantra. Susie’s body is quick at healing and getting back to full health.

To my surprise, friends, family, and strangers from around the world prayed for me, and put me on prayer lists at their local places of worship. People shared their own stories of successful brain surgeries, which helped to calm my nerves. I was already emotionally charged, and this sent me over the edge. The support was surreal, and difficult to process. How did I deserve all of this?

I meditated before my surgery, trying to keep myself in a positive state. I watched TV shows and movies that made me laugh. I focused on the best memories I had, the moments that brought so much joy to my life. I had my family there: my dad, stepmom, brother, and my husband. I tried my best not to be too weepy. I could see the fear in my husband’s eyes. My dad and stepmom seemed altogether too cheery and confident. I was panicking on the inside, but I was trying to be brave. I didn’t want my family to worry more, so I made them laugh.

They wheeled me into the cold, sterile operating room that was filled with doctors and nurses busy prepping their stations. I remember thinking about my mom, and then I was out from the anesthesia. When I came to, I was being wheeled down the hallway, where I saw my husband and my brother turning the corner. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or not.

I looked at my brother and asked,, “Is this real? Am I dreaming?” He gave me a puzzled look and then started laughing.

“This is real,” he said “You just made it out of surgery.”

I think everyone, myself included, were shocked at how minimal the physical aftereffects of surgery were. I regained movement and mobility on the left side of my body within a day. My face was no longer drooping on the left side, and my speech was quicker than it had been, almost back to normal.

I’m a star patient and great at following instructions. But, in truth, I attribute my recovery to all the people praying for me. It just didn’t seem normal how quickly I was recovering. I stayed one night in the Intensive Care Unit, the next in the main hospital, and then they released me. It had been two days. I was in the hospital longer after giving birth!

Anyone going through cancer, particularly late-stage cancer, is suffering physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some days are OK, others are unbearable. And as a patient, it’s hard to stomach the demands placed upon me: to make so many potentially life-altering decisions when I’m in such emotional distress, and sometimes when I’m medicated. There’s no way to get through those moments and at the same time process or bear witness to your emotions. You have to put them on the shelf. And after the storm clears, you’re left to deal with the emotional fallout. It can be too much to handle.


I’m still trying to find a way to process my trauma. Thus, the eventual release (or meltdown) of all the fear, anger, and sadness I keep bottled up. I don’t think I’m alone in this. As cancer patients, we have little control over our bodies. We have limited options in treatments—cut us, poison us, burn us. We are constantly in fight or flight mode. Our adrenals are shot. Our nervous system is overloaded. And rarely is our mental state addressed in the medical system.

I never emotionally processed this emergency brain surgery. Neither had my husband or my son. We were in survival mode, and I was bound to break down sooner or later. By the time I got home from the hospital, I was once again feeling mom-guilt. I had been absent and behind in every part of my life. I tried to get back on that horse. Turns out, I was trying too hard. A week after being home, the Susie ticking time bomb detonated. Then came the meltdown of epic proportions.

I thought I could handle the mental part on my own. But as I continue to write my story, and parse my history and experiences, I’m realizing that I never effectively dealt with any of my traumas. Now, I stand ready and willing to release all the pain and anger from my body for good.

Maybe part of my healing needs to happen on an emotional level, too. Maybe healing my spirit will help to heal my body. I survived my craniotomy. I have renewed hope and a plan of action that my entire team of doctors agreed on. Nuts! That doesn’t mean I want to go through more surgeries, radiation, infusions, but I’m ready to get to the other side of my cancers, particularly this grueling, stage-four breast cancer beast.

Let’s do this, universe. I have been reborn. I am a phoenix. (Cue, Gloria Gaynor.)

Susie Lee is a celebrity make-up artist and Founder of ECHO VIE, an all-natural line of skincare products she developed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a four-time cancer survivor, mother, and entrepreneur. Susie is currently living through her fifth experience with cancer. She has grown a viral audience on TikTok and Instagram, where she talks about her journey in real time, and is in the process of writing a memoir in essays for Zibby Books. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

You can contribute to her GoFundMe account here.

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