Malvernite Suzanne Chen never had any major health concerns. A wife with two children and a full-time job as vice president of planning and allocation at J.McLaughlin, she was happy with her life. In January, her boss, Glynis Karp, had a mammogram appointment, and encouraged her to make one as well. Chen visited her gynecologist, Dr. Zoe Rodriguez, who found a three-centimeter lump. “She said that I needed to return for a biopsy, and to prepare for the worst,” Chen said.
Within a week, Chen, 48, was diagnosed with Stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that affects roughly 20 percent of people who get breast cancer.
“It was all unexpected. It happened so fast . . . I definitely just got caught in the tide,” she said. “It was like an avalanche. You just kind of roll with it and try as best as you can, [and] reach out to all of the smartest people that I know to ask them as many questions as I could.”
She began chemotherapy in February at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, which lasted for about three months. She explained that it was tough to see the benefits of chemo because it involved getting sick. “My doctors would give me updates and say that the tumor is getting smaller, but as a patient, you don’t recognize any of the progress,” Chen said.
Her oncologist, Dr. Sarah Cate, said that every breast cancer gets tested for estrogen, progesterone and HER2. “HER2 tends to be a little more aggressive, so chemotherapy is a part of all of those patients’ treatments,” Cate said.
The doctor added that she — along with oncologist Dr. Stephen Malamud — spends time helping patients such as Chen understand chemotherapy. “It was comforting to know that there was a known cycle,” Chen said. “All I had to do was follow it. It’s like going on a diet.”
Chen underwent a double mastectomy in June and then began radiation therapy in August. Chen, who continued working while she received treatment, said she wanted to share her story to motivate others to get tested. “It sounds a lot scarier than it actually was,” she said. “There were frightening moments, but coming out on this side of it, I can see that if you surround yourself with the best, good things can happen.”
Chen, who has lived in Malverne for 15 years and has two daughters, Isabel, 15, and Bridget, 8, said that it is easy for women who are mothers to neglect their own health. She encourages all women to make the time for themselves to get checked. Cate said there is conflicting information about getting mammograms, so it is key that physicians provide “concrete” facts.
“It’s an important conversation to have with your doctor and to really be educated about it yourself,” Cate said.
Chen completed radiation therapy last week, and she said that as soon as she has the strength, she plans to take part in events that involve breast cancer awareness. Her first act, she said, will be to donate blood. “I’m a newborn in this, and I just need to figure out how I can contribute. I am the beneficiary of all the women before me who have gone through this, so whatever I can do to clear the path for somebody, I’m more than happy to do that.”