Four-time cancer survivor says being diagnosed while pregnant changed her life
Susie Lee, 43, is a business owner, skincare expert, celebrity makeup artist, and the mum of an eight-year-old.
She’s also a four-time cancer survivor, with her second diagnosis coming while she was pregnant with her son. Susie delayed chemotherapy out of fear for her baby, and ended up having to cope with the combination of treatment for cancer, looking after a newborn, and postpartum depression all at the same time.
She survived, created her company, ECHO VIE, and now shares her story to show others they can make it through their darkest times.
‘It was very difficult,’ Susie tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I have to be honest and say that thoughts of suicide would creep through my brain.
‘It was all too much and I felt like I was drowning… I just wanted it all to stop.
‘But I would imagine a black pond and only allow myself to dip my toes into the bad thoughts. I would not allow myself to plunge into the water, for fear that I wouldn’t get out.
‘The only thing that kept me sane was my baby. He helped me get through that time.’
The first time Susie, from Chicago, was diagnosed with cancer she was 20 years old and between her third and fourth year at university.
She often had coughs and colds but assumed that was just a symptom of living in dorm rooms among loads of other students.
But then she noticed a small, painless, swollen bump on the left side of her neck, close to her collarbone. Susie went to get it checked but was dismissed as just getting over another cold.
That was until one doctor gave Susie a chest x-ray, which revealed a growth in her chest.
She underwent surgery for the removal of the node as well as radiation.
The second diagnosis came over a decade later, when Susie was six months pregnant with her first child.
While on a babymoon to Mexico, Susie noticed that the underwire of her bra was poking into her chest and causing her pain. She dismissed it as just your standard irritation from a cheap bra, but days later the bump was still there.
She made an appointment for a checkup and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
‘When I felt a lump in my breast, I thought surely this is something normal that happens to pregnant women,’ says Susie.
‘But I did have a gut feeling that something was not quite right.
‘I went straight away to get it looked at with an ultrasound. In the same afternoon, I had a core biopsy which confirmed that it was breast cancer. I was in complete disbelief and went
numb. I was absolutely devastated to find out that I had cancer, again.’
Being pregnant added a new layer to Susie’s concerns.
She tells us: ‘Before, I only had to worry about my own body, but this time I had another life to worry about… it was awful.
‘To add insult to injury, I would have loved to drink myself into a stupor, but my usual coping method was not an option.’
Despite her doctor recommending immediate treatment, Susie made the difficult decision to delay chemotherapy until after the birth of her child.
She had to have a lumpectomy while pregnant, however, and needed to be awake during surgery.
‘I had to really meditate and focus during the surgery because I wanted to keep both our heart rates down, because I could have gone into spontaneous labour,’ Susie explains.
The doctors ended up inducing her baby two weeks early in order to start treatment. Thankfully the baby was healthy.
A month after her first son was born, Susie began treatment.
‘I chose to delay treatment by a month,’ she says. ‘We were planning a bi-lateral mastectomy after birth, but I wanted to be able to breastfeed.
‘So a month postpartum, we began chemotherapy. Every step of the way I had to make really difficult choices for treatment.
‘Some of my doctors were really pushing me to proceed with chemotherapy during pregnancy, but I just couldn’t allow that to happen. We can only have a glass of wine occasionally, but you can pump me full of toxic chemicals and it’s ok for the baby? I was skeptical. I chose to wait until after birth.
‘I knew that it was caught early, so I gambled with time and made the decision to have the experience that I would never be able to have again. I really wanted to breastfeed, and I’m happy that I had the opportunity.’
The months that followed were hard.
Alongside dealing with all the ways her body had changed thanks to pregnancy and labour, Susie was faced with side-effects from chemotherapy that made her ‘completely miserable’ – all while raising a newborn and battling postpartum depression.
The immense challenges she had faced pushed Susie to make some changes.
The mum had long used makeup as a tool to enhance people’s unique beauty and inspire confidence and was overjoyed to be able to continue her work as a makeup artist after giving birth.
Getting pregnant and dealing with cancer for the second time made her consider the impact of products she was using on health. She changed up her diet, cleaned out her personal care products, and became more critical of everything she purchased, avoiding highly processed food and beauty items containing any dodgy chemicals.
Plus, chemotherapy had wrecked Susie’s skin. She needed ultra-nourishing skincare products that were all-natural, actually worked, and that made her feel good.
Struggling to find products that met those requirements, Susie began making her own in her kitchen. At first, these natural skincare items were just for Susie and her family, but soon she began using them on set during work, and people asked if they could get their own.
That’s how ECHO VIE, Susie’s holistic skincare line, was born.
Her experiences with cancer helped not only to create her business, but changed the way Susie sees her own beauty – and how she views every other part of her life.
‘I am trying to be as gentle as I can to myself and my body,’ Susie tells us. ‘I am not keen on needles and surgery because of all that I’ve already endured.
‘My experiences have helped me to create deeper connections to the people around me, especially my son. I spend as much time with him as I can; and not time where he’s doing one activity, and I’m mindlessly on my phone.
‘We have conversations, laugh and play together. I’ve spoked to him about cancer and death, which sounds so morbid, but he seems to understand.’
Unfortunately, Susie’s experience with cancer didn’t end after the arrival of her son.
Not long after finishing chemotherapy, Susie felt another lump. It was removed, tested, and came back positive for cancer.
Then, in April 2018, Susie was diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time. More surgery followed.
Today Susie continues to live life to its full potential, knowing full well just how fragile it can be.
She shares her story openly with her Instagram followers in the hope that she’ll show others struggling that they’re not alone and inspire people to live life to the full.
‘It’s crazy that it doesn’t matter how many times it happens, nothing can prepare you for the avalanche of thoughts that take over your brain when you’re told you have cancer,’ Susie says.
‘I’ve learned that no one is guaranteed a long life, so you must live each day. I care less about what people think of me. I try and take care of my mental, emotional, and physical state of being.
‘After my second time going through chemotherapy, I felt like time was so precious. I didn’t want to waste any of it.’
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