by David Rodman Cohan
My daughter Susan was a beautiful little girl and perfect child and sister. With her brightsmile and curly blond hair she literally lit up a room. Her piercing, innocent blue eyes, belied her inner grit and determination. Throughout her childhood she developed a wonderful, optimistic, perspective of the people, and the world around her. She cherished her family and friends and began to develop life long friendships. Susan attended college in Maryland with the desire to pursue a career in broadcasting, perhaps a news anchor. Throughout college, Susan worked at my law firm part time and familiarized herself with human resources and accounting aspects of the practice.
When Susan graduated from college, she submitted resumes to various television stations and at my suggestion she included her picture. Within one week, she received an offer from a public broadcasting station in Florida. However, her family values and a desire to start her own family kept her in Baltimore. She remained with my law firm and expertly managed all financial and administrative aspects of the practice. Susan then met her husband to be from Athens, Greece. They married and had two beautiful children, Alex and Demi. Her husband's business took them to Florida. We still spoke on the phone almost daily, and she maintained close relationships with her mom, brother, and two sisters, her other family members and friends in Baltimore.
On November 4, 2002, Susan celebrated her fortieth birthday. We all were excited that the Thanksgiving holiday was approaching knowing Susan and her family would soon be joining us in Baltimore. We couldn't wait to see her…. In the previous months, Susan had mentioned she was not feeling too well and was having stomach pain and rectal bleeding. She saw several doctors who told her it was nothing serious and prescribed laxatives. Susan, as always, was immersed in her family constantly putting her husband and children first. She quietly endured the pain and discomfort, but never discussed it with me or the rest of our family.
Then suddenly, our unimaginable nightmare began. Susie called me from the emergency room in Boca Raton, Florida. She had admitted herself earlier that day in excruciating pain that she could no longer tolerate. She had been told in the emergency room that she had an advanced stage of colon cancer and that she could only expect to live a couple of months. Susie was hysterically crying, and I was devastated. Her husband and I made immediate arrangements for her to be flown by air ambulance to Baltimore. Her husband and two children, who at the time were 6 and 8, accompanied her in the air ambulance, and when they arrived in Baltimore you could see the shock and distress in their faces worrying about Susan. Upon her arrival Susan came under the care of a brilliant oncologist, Dr. Rodrigo B. Erlich. Dr. Erlich was candid in his diagnosis and prognosis, but displayed so much warmth and compassion that Susan responded with incredible determination. Susan required emergency surgery which included a colostomy. The tumor in her colon at the time could not be removed surgically because it was too big. Awakening from the anesthesia, Susan was greeted by her husband, children, and the rest of our family. She responded with such cheerfulness and dignity, that no one could have imagined what she had just been through, both physically and emotionally. Her inner strength and her genuine concern for others inspired everyone touched by her.
Unfortunately, her war had just begun. Over the next six months, Susan endured five intensive rounds of chemotherapy which required her to travel on a continuous basis from Florida to Baltimore. She longed for her children, who were in school in Florida and could not fly with her on most occasions. Even though Susan was so weak she took the journeys back and forth as a loving mother so that she could spend as much quality time as possible with her children. It was heartbreaking to see Susan on so many occasions unable to drive them to school, to attend school programs or athletic events and do the many other things with them she could not do anymore. Susan became close friends with several mothers in Florida that she met at her children's school, and these friends were always there for Susan and displayed remarkable compassion for her.
At each round of chemotherapy, that lasted about six hours, she was always accompanied by her sisters, and most times also by her mother and me. The initial chemotherapy was a newly introduced protocol from Europe that did not cause hair loss. Susan was happy because she though it would be less traumatic for the children. Cat and pet scans were taken, and the results showed that the huge mass in her colon had been substantially reduced, and although the cancer had metastasized (spread) to her liver and her lung, the chemotherapy seemed to contain the spreading. Next, a skilled surgeon, Dr. Mukund S. Didolkar, performed an intensive seven hour surgery and was able to remove the shrunk mass from the colorectal area. A biopsy was performed on the mass, and surprisingly it was now cancer free.
Susie and the entire family's optimism soared. Three weeks later Dr. Didolkar was able to reverse the colostomy and Susan was able to regain normal bowel functions. Thereafter, Susan was being constantly monitored by cat scans and pet scans. There were cancerous lesions still found in her liver and lung. Susan once again had to travel back and forth from Florida to Baltimore for a number of surgical procedures to attack and burn the lesions in her lung and liver. This battle raged on for almost two years. In the midst of all of this, Susan's two sisters, Kim and Jody, along with her brother Allan, were urged to have colonoscopies. Susie saved her two sister's lives, as they both had pre-cancerous polyps that were removed during their colonoscopies. Susie, who was so selfless, was thrilled that although she had endured so much she had at least saved her sisters' lives. Susan's faith was unshaken. It was at this time that Susan and I discussed establishing the foundation because she wanted to save lives and suffering by telling people how horrible colon cancer is and how important it is to obtain early screenings. Susan's brother Allan left his business and literally put his life on hold to move to Florida and be a daily ally of Susan in her war and an inspiring uncle and buddy to the children. Susan's cousins were providers of love and care to her in particular, Stephanie, who spoke to her everyday and visited regularly helping her with the children.
Then Susie endured new and more intensive rounds of chemotherapy causing her to lose all her hair, but she joyfully had pictures of her and Allan, who is bald, taken and laughed and reminisced about how people had mistaken them for twins growing up. Alex and Demi cared for their mother with incredible courage beyond their years while their father Panos had to concentrate on Susie's care and continue his business at the same time. I constantly had to hold back tears watching the children care for her, because I could see the worry in Susan's eyes not for herself but for the pain she perceived she was causing the children.
We were always a close family but Susan's unanticipated tragic illness brought us even closer together physically and even more important spiritually. For two years she fought with the grace, courage and charisma of a proud young woman who refused to have self pity or bow down to this vicious disease. She never lost her beauty, nor did she complain. When people met her, they could not believe she was sick. Her faith was unshaken, and every time family and friends got together with Susie she inspired and uplifted all of us with her courage and remarkable attitude. She would say that "The heart is the only major organ that the cancer can not attack". Susie and I started the Foundation, and she had hoped to live to inform everyone she could reach how important it is to detect colon cancer in its early stage, as polyps; this early detection could have saved Susan's life. Susie wanted to have the Foundation help the efforts to eradicate colon cancer as a life threatening disease which is the second leading cancer related death.
The Foundation known as "Susie's Cause" is to remind all of us of everything about Susan's faith and courage and her adamant desire to help everyone and prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering from colon cancer. No mother or father should ever have to bury a child. No children should lose their brother or sister to this disease. No child should have to grow up without a mother or father. Observing her children without a mother is heart wrenching. Alex said to me shortly after Susie died, "Pop, I have two questions. How do you think mommy is doing as an angel, and why did mommy have to leave so soon?" He then cried as he told me how much he and Demi missed her hugs and kisses. In reflection, the only answer that made any sense was, "Mommy is doing awesome as an angel and she left so soon because as an angel, looking over us, she had hundreds of thousands of lives to save."