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April 30, 1998

Race for the Cure

On Sunday, April 26, Sue Harkins, for the past five years director of the College Connections program in Arts and Sciences, attended Pitt's commencement ceremony and received the hood symbolic of her doctorate in higher education administration, directly behind her alphabetically arranged husband, Bob (Gerald Robert Harkins, director of Pitt's Parking, Transportation and Services), who had earned the same degree.

On Sunday, May 10, Sue Harkins will run in the Race for the Cure wearing a pink hat that proclaims her as a survivor of breast cancer.

She talks freely and candidly of her battle, "because talking about it reminds me of where I think I need to be." Recalling poignant moments of her life, her eyes well up at times, even in simultaneous juxtaposition with her broad smile. Such are the dichotomous manifestations of "her journey as a breast cancer survivor," as she terms it.

That journey has included:

* The moment in March 1991, just two months after a mammogram checked out fine and despite no risk factors, that she rolled over in bed and discovered a large mass in her breast.

* The moment of hesitation whether to tell her husband, who at that time was in the army stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. "One of my best friends was the wife of his boss in Saudi, so I knew he would find out. I know I would have told him anyway, but I did hesitate."

* The moment of choosing a treatment. "I chose a mastectomy over a lumpectomy with the advice of the doctors, and I'm comfortable with the decision, which I think is important."

* The moment with her sister before her first chemotherapy treatment, when she said, "I'm scared," and heard her sister say, "I am, too" — which is "the moment I realized I'm not in this alone."

* The moment of greeting her husband, called back temporarily from army service, in a "Casablanca"-esque tableau, hugging him in a tear-masking rainstorm, and thinking "cancer isn't in control of my life. With his help, we can go forward. And…we did."

* The moment of role-reversal when one of her two sons, at home at the time, "stood in the darkness in the bedroom doorway. Just stood in the darkness, without a word," while his mother wept in bed. "And I later thought: For the first time, he was now the caregiver. And, as a mother, you don't think of that, or you don't think of it until you see it. But you also see the powerless [look of] pain in his face. It meant a lot to me."

* The moment of the first significant hair loss, a result of chemotherapy. "For me personally losing my hair was devastating. And I was really depressed and down. But, you know, they say, 'The only thing you can control with cancer is your attitude.' And I said, 'Well, if I have to go through this, I'm going to do it with a little class, and I started to wear more makeup than I usually do — I was teaching at the time — and bigger earrings and I teased my wig up. And I just did it up right. "I think I'm a person who seizes opportunities. And I see the humor, too. My husband at night was 'polishing' my head and calling me his 'little Martian,' and that helped, too."

* The moment, after eight months of chemotherapy, she was told she didn't have to return for any more radiation treatment. "I was terrified. It was like I was losing a whole support group, with doctors and nurses around me, caring for me. Here it was good news, but yet it scared me.

"I won't describe my attitude as 'positive,' because what's positive for me may not be for other women. I have a survivor attitude. "I do a lot of work with breast cancer patients through the American Cancer Society, and I'm an active advocate in the National Breast Cancer Coalition, and I've learned, each person is different. I tell women, 'You have got to find your own answers.' Whatever they're feeling, it's okay.

"It's never easy. It's never easy. But it's getting better. "It used to be that breast cancer was only whispered about; the woman suffered alone. It used to be, a woman was put to sleep [on an operating table] and a doctor would do the evaluation and the operation [at the same time], and only when she woke up would a woman know if she still had a breast. Now, we're involved in the decision-making. Now we have more options. And the technology is getting better with ultrasound and better drug treatments. "I want to tell women, 'Yes, I had this disease, and no you're not going to die, if we catch it early.' Early detection is so important. Women don't want to do self-exams because we are afraid of what we might find. I tell women, 'Self-exams are to keep reminding yourself of what lumps are supposed to be there.' "Speaking as a woman, what do we fear? Well, we fear the loss of a husband, sure, but we also always fear a doctor saying: 'You have breast cancer.' You think, if I lose a breast, I'll feel deformed, lose my femininity and these other things. It's like a nightmare come true. "But you have humor for strength, and also family, your religion, your faith and other breast cancer survivors."

Turning her thoughts to the May 10 event, Harkins said, "There's something awe-inspiring about the Race for the Cure." See story on page 5. "What this says, these women running around, is that 'If a doctor happens to say [you have breast cancer] to me, I can be running around with this pink hat, too. I'm not going to die. I've got to get through it, yes, but I'll be okay. "And families that are running around in memory of their mothers, says: 'If, God forbid, I should happen to die from breast cancer, there's lots of support there for my family.

"All the politics is out of the race. There is a real commitment to help underserved women in the fight to stop breast cancer, and, of course, not just underserved women, but all women.

"I will always characterize my journey [by saying] I certainly don't count myself lucky to have had breast cancer, but I do count myself very lucky to have known women who have had breast cancer.

"I tell my story to anyone who will listen, not because it is unique; because it has a good ending. When I say a good ending, I'm talking about today, because we don't know about tomorrow. I know tomorrow I may roll over in bed and I can have it again. But I have today, and it's going to be a good day. That's my philosophy of life: Every day's a good day.

"I'm a survivor of my dissertation, too, you know," she said, this time with happy eyes to match the smile. "You start out, and you work, and work, and you get it done."

From Sue Harkins — make that Susan Carolyn Harkins, Ph.D. — there is no talk of being cured. No talk of freedom from fear. Or the end of struggle. Instead, she talks of a journey of determination, of dealing with, and learning from, suffering, of emotional and psychological adjustment. In a word, she talks about surviving.

–Peter Hart

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