Susan Moir was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2002. For nearly two decades, the “unwelcome guest” of cancer has been her companion. Thanks to metastases that moved to her brain and pancreas, she’s had a laundry list of conventional treatments – a craniotomy, gamma knife surgery, immunotherapy, a nephrectomy and more. She’s developed a grim expertise in the art of watchful waiting. Along the way, she’s also become a reiki teacher, explored complimentary therapies and, most importantly, inspired hope for cancer patients across the country.
“I think it’s helpful to know that there is the possibility of longevity when you have active disease,” she says. “When you go into any kind of cancer treatment, you’re hoping, praying, wishing for a cure. But for a percentage of us, cancer’s there always, surprising us.”
It may be “there always,” but she refuses to let cancer dictate her life. Her latest rounds of treatment, including another brain surgery, have changed her health permanently. But she’s determined to enjoy the moments she can. “You can really start limiting your life. I live a really normal life,” she says. “I have to manipulate things around my scans or treatments, but my husband and I still travel.”
After the radical surgery of a nephrectomy, she enjoyed five “magic” years of good health. “Radical surgery saved my life.” Then, the sudden 4am headaches led to treatments for allergies that wouldn’t go away. Tests and scans revealed metastases. Susan’s brain surgery was scheduled for Christmas Eve. She said goodbye to her family unsure if she’d wake up. “But a few days later, I was okay, ready to head home. It took me a while to fully recover, but brain surgery is not as difficult as abdominal surgery. Brain surgery was a breeze,” she remembers wryly.
But cancer was undeniably on the move. “There were no ‘good’ options and nothing I felt comfortable doing,” she recalls. She was soon on the road with her supportive husband, headed to Mexico City to visit the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and pray for a miracle. But the miracle didn’t materialize. She returned home and scans discovered another tumor.
“Practicing and teaching reiki changed my life.” As life with cancer progressed, Susan trained as a CHN Support Volunteer and began serving as a volunteer at the local cancer center. (CHN partner St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, OR) “At first, I simply practiced on myself for my own health and well-being. Then I began to give my energy and focus to others.”
A practice of mindfulness had always been part of her life. Now, she researched, read and began taking mind-body classes. She worked with an herbalist and began cannabis treatment. “I was fortunate that I have a primary doctor who is an MD, and is also involved in Eastern medicine and complimentary medicines. He considers cancer a chronic disease.” That practice and those beliefs gave her extra confidence to follow his more traditional treatment recommendations.
That comfort also helped the self-declared conflict avoider to stand strong when working with her medical team to determine what would work in her particular situation. When faced with her first brain cancer, they decided to avoid whole-brain radiation (at that time the gold standard). It was a decision that was backed by science and made her comfortable.
“Always listen. Find options. The answers are never worse than what we imagine. I’m continually questioning what to do next. Sometimes simple is best. Don’t panic and grasp at whatever is suggested. And when you do decide, be sure it’s what you believe in.”
“If you have the resources, the time, work with your doctor and do complimentary therapies that look good and are available to you. They’re likely to make you feel better. They might not cure you, they might not even make your symptoms go away, but you’ll feel better. And when you feel better, you heal better.”
While she’s found benefit in therapies that compliment her treatment plan, she still advocates caution. “It’s good to slow down instead of just trying to do everything that might work. You get a lot of advice. That slowing down, the waiting, is really important. It’s really helpful to get a better understanding of the process, what’s helpful and what’s not. Take the time to understand what you need.”
Her daughter is now a gynecologic oncologist. “My child has taken this as her life’s work because of me.” Preya credits her mother with helping her develop new understanding and empathy when working with patients.
Susan is a fierce advocate for finding support and taking advantage of services like support groups and a cancer therapist. “The whole system is bulky and awkward,” she says. “It’s so hard to navigate. Most of us, at least at the beginning, are just thrown into this world that is pretty foreign to us.”
She encourages her matches to embrace help where they find it. “Support and friendships will arrive when you least expect it.”
Susan is positive, upbeat. But she’s also realistic about the challenges of cancer. “I’ve had as many rotten moments as possible. But there again, I’ve found the support of family and other cancer patients. After my brain mets, when I was really frightened and trying to decide what to do, I met two new friends. Their whole purpose was to make me laugh all the time. That was a really wonderful gift, totally unexpected. That came from seeking ways to make myself healthier and being open to what arrived.”
Like many patients, accepting help was difficult at first. But she encourages them to try. “As hard as it is, accept what is offered. It’s hard for patients to know what they want, but your loved ones have a real desire to help.”
For those loved ones, she also shares advice. “Make me laugh about something that has nothing to do with cancer. Cancer takes over your life enough as it is. It’s not that I don’t want to share, but sometimes, I just want to talk about what to make for dinner. “
Through it all, she retains perspective. “Today is a good day. That’s all I’ve got. I try to take it in.”