Family, Interrupted

Author: Michael F. Susi '81

“The biopsy results were positive; you have cancer.”

Three simple words: “You have cancer.” I had a feeling it was coming. Yet nothing prepares you for the numbing of your entire human essence that those words bring. To this day I’m not sure if the void that came over me — I went completely blank, staring out the office window — lasted for five seconds or five minutes.

Prior to that dreadful day, my wife, Karen, and I were in the early stages of starting a family. As the months and then years went by, anticipation turned to anxiety. Each remedial action was followed by months of evaluation. First it was Karen’s turn: exams, tests, evaluations, laparoscopic surgery, drugs, etc. Nothing. Then it was my turn: exams, tests, evaluations, outpatient surgery to correct a minor problem, etc. Nothing. In an ironic twist however, that deep desire to bring new life into the world brought me to the urologist who would later deliver the message that I had testicular cancer.

It began with a discomfort; my dad remembering a comment I made as we drove to Monmouth Park in New Jersey while taking some vacation time with him. Then came the tenderness and swelling. On a Thursday in early autumn, 1993, as I was delivering training sessions, it took everything I had to keep from passing out in front of the group.

During lunch break I phoned the urologist. After an exam later that afternoon, the list of possible causes he gave me was not long. While still keeping things open, he did a good job of letting me read between the lines. I took the hint. At home, I told Karen, “I think I have cancer.”

After no response to antibiotics over the weekend, I was back in on Monday. I don’t recall the exam, but the conclusion was that I had a tumor. A biopsy was scheduled and performed within a couple of weeks.

So that is how my life came to intersect the words “you have cancer.” From that moment forward I was thrust into a world of percentages and avoidance of the dreaded “M” word — metastasize.

My data indicated about a 50 percent chance that it had spread. Yet I was fortunate, because, as I recall, it came with an 80 to 90 percent cure rate. Because Karen and I had been struggling to start a family for some years prior to this, the complexity and stress of the situation increased tenfold.

After Dr. Laudone presented me with all of the pertinent percentages, my gut lead me to a rather quick decision. The disease caught me by surprise with the first shot, but I was going to take whatever steps necessary to stay one step ahead of it. Rather then take a wait-and-see approach with monthly scans, I opted for surgery.

The surgery was a lymph node dissection and (as I would come to know) was fairly brutal. It also came with a 10 or 15 percent chance that the surgery could leave me unable to have children. This additional little twist became, I think, a blessing in disguise. For a period of time, my focus shifted primarily to this child I didn’t have. Sounds crazy, but it did.

A short time into my journey I remember the professional golfer Paul Azinger entering into his version of the cancer journey. I recall a quote he gave that went something like this, “For me, it’s a private battle.” Bingo! He couldn’t have described my approach any better. Some in this situation need or choose to discuss it with many people. That’s fine; it’s their way of getting support. For me however, the choice was to tell only trusted confidants. My wife fielded voluminous phone calls from wonderful family and friends, allowing me to rest and get an occasional break from the journey. At work only senior management and the HR manager knew of the diagnosis. Believe me, it was nice not to constantly talk about the cancer.

While I was spinning in the whirlpool of decisions and emotions, I received two of the best pieces of advice from two of those trusted confidants. The first came from one of my dearest friends, who also happens to be one of the Notre Dame “crew” that, like so many others, has stayed close through the years. He said, “Zeus (my nickname), you can only slay one dragon at a time.” It’s more profound than you think. His message: “Get better first, then worry about your ‘family.’”

The second, from my dad, was along the same lines. He noted that if I weren’t around, I wouldn’t have to worry about a family at all. “So take care of yourself first,” he advised. With that, I focused on fighting my battle and putting the rest in God’s hands.

The surgery, although arduous, couldn’t have had a better outcome. While still recovering in the hospital, I received the news that all lymph node specimens tested negative. The ramifications were significant. First and foremost, no chemotherapy was required. Also, testing (scans, x-rays, blood work) every six months instead of monthly. And, as I would learn sometime later, we could still (theoretically) have a family.

Because the type of cancer I had was aggressive, the first two years (and especially the first) were significant. If the cancer were going to move elsewhere, it would move quickly. The week before the check-ups, I was naturally always a bit more anxious. But as each pictures and blood work came back normal, my confidence built. My recollection is that it was around the 18-month check-up that I broached the family subject. If we were able to conceive (even though the odds were low), I asked, would I be around to see the child? Technically, complete cure is deemed at five years, the “unless you get run over by a car” response was a pretty good green light.

I received some tremendous gifts from that journey. But after years of trying and failing, after losing some of the requisite anatomy, after looking my mortality square in the eye and conquering, still nothing could compare to the elation upon hearing three simple words, “Honey, I’m pregnant.”

Christine Theresa Susi was born February 22, 1995. To this day, my dad calls her the miracle baby. Her cries as an infant were pure joy. “Cries of life,” I called them.

Two years later Karen and I would be blessed again with the playmate we had wanted for Christine. Indeed, Alicia Michelle and Christine are inseparable. They frequently bring to mind a quote above my desk at home, “Happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.” Those two little miracles bring me great joy.

My 5-year follow-up came on a Friday morning. The good news that I was now officially cured was followed by handshakes and hugs from Dr. Laudone and his nurse Carol, and wishes for a great life. Frankly, I already had one.

The first stop I made was at our church. I thanked God for the miracles in my life and for the fortunate "one and done’ with cancer. In particular I thanked him for the peace, love and joy it has given me and asked him to help me never lose the great lessons I had learned. Next I went home and wrote thank-you notes to the many who supported me.

Finally, coming full circle, I picked up Christine early at her preschool. She never saw the tears I cried while driving there. We went to the pond in town and fed the ducks. We celebrated life on a beautiful autumn afternoon.

Mike Susi has had no recurrence of the cancer. Christine is now 8 years old and Alicia is 6; their father is coaching them in soccer.