In seeking her own improved health, Susan Rodriguez discovered the path to improving others.
Today, in addition to owning and operating her own insurance agency in San Luis Obispo, the Pismo Beach grandmother of seven volunteers as a yoga instructor at Mission Hope Cancer Center, offers reiki at its infusion center, and is the author of “Behind the Smiling Face: My Journey with Breast Cancer,” a retelling of her own cancer journey and fundraiser for Mission Hope.
“I believe, looking back, what really helped me the most in getting through, was my attitude,” Rodriguez said.
Shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in March 2016, Rodriguez realized she would not be able to hide the results of her mastectomy nor the hair loss she knew her treatments would bring.
Instead, she faced it all head on.
“When I told friends and family my diagnosis, they all asked, ‘Why you?’ Or they said, ‘It’s so unfair.’ That kind of stuff, but then I thought, why not me?’ One in eight people get breast cancer. Why shouldn’t it be me? I’m strong. I’m healthy. I have an amazing support network of friends and family, great health insurance, a business where I was able to hire extra people to help keep it running. I had so much that made it possible to do this journey without it killing me,” Rodriguez said.
It was her sister who pushed Rodriguez to visit the doctor to check out a discoloration on her lip that spring.
“I had not been going to the doctor or going for mammograms for over five years,” Rodriguez said.
A nurse found the lump in her breast.
“From there, things just went like a whirlwind,” Rodriguez said.
First one biopsy, then another for confirmation, led to a diagnosis: HER2-positive breast cancer, a more aggressive form of breast cancer which has a higher likelihood of recurring than its HER2-negative counterpoint.
Rodriguez started chemotherapy and additional medications immediately, had a full mastectomy, maintenance therapy, radiation, reconstruction surgeries and participated in a year-long clinical drug trial.
“I wasn’t always smiling. It’s definitely a hard journey,” Rodriguez said.
Instead of trying to hide the fact that she had cancer, she opted to post updates on social media.
“In the pictures I posted, I was always careful to have a smiling face because I wanted people to believe I would be OK. And I am OK,” she said.
But she was also taking notes about the reality of daily life with cancer, its treatments, its drawbacks, and inspiration she found along the way. That journal “snowballed” into a book, now available on amazon.com with all proceeds benefiting Mission Hope Cancer Center.
“It’s a way to get right out there, tell my story, but also to encourage women to get your darn mammograms,” Rodriguez said.
Today, she continues her personal yoga practice and is more than two years cancer free.
“And I drown myself in essential oils and whatever new tools I can find to keep myself centered and at peace,” Rodriguez said.
That peace is also found in time spent with her husband, Stan Rodriguez, their five children and seven grandchildren.
“I spent time during my recovery gardening, developing my creative side, painting, crafts, flipping furniture, but my grandchildren are my favorite hobby,” she said.
“One thing that’s weird about having cancer: still, when I meet people who I didn’t know when I was going through treatment, or who didn’t see me then, they get a ‘poor-you’ pitying attitude, but I really look at it as a blessing in a weird way. I’ve grown so much spiritually and maturity-wise, and I’ve met such amazing people, that it was a blessing,” Rodriguez said.