Susan Kuzniewski never will forget the day she heard the words, “You have breast cancer.”
On Dec. 20, Kuzniewski of Frederick was in the parking lot of Giant Food in Ballenger Creek loading groceries into her car, when she got the news that would change her life.
”[The doctor] called me when I was at the grocery store buying meat for Christmas dinner,” she said.
The 41-year-old mother of three young children said she was expecting a clean bill of health, but her doctor’s voice sounded serious as he told her about her diagnosis.
“Of course, I burst into tears,” she said. “Luckily, I had a girlfriend with me. Needless to say I haven’t been back to that grocery store.”
Kuzniewski was 40 at the time of her diagnosis, with no family history of breast cancer. Her breast cancer was discovered during her first routine mammogram.
“I went in for my yearly gynecological visit, and my doctor recommended the mammogram,” she said. “He didn’t feel anything with the examination. I didn’t feel anything, and I wasn’t in pain. It was just pure luck.”
Six months later, after undergoing a bilateral mastectomy — the removal of both breasts — with immediate reconstruction on Feb. 8, Kuzniewski wants to encourage other women to get a mammogram, regardless of their risk factors.
“If I would have waited six more months for my mammogram, I wouldn’t of had any options [because] the cancer was so invasive,” Kuzniewski said. “If anybody can hear my voice, early detection is the key to my recovery. The one thing I want them to take away from my situation, is that early detection is the key.”
Several of her friends — all in their 30s and 40s — scheduled mammograms following Kuzniewski’s diagnosis.
Yun Oh, an oncologist at the Cancer Care Center of Frederick, agrees early detection is vital for survival.
“The earlier you catch a cancer the more likely to cure the cancer,” he said. “Self examinations are encouraged, but if you find a lump, it may already be advanced. There are more benefits to early detection.”
The exact age in which a woman should start getting mammograms has been debated for sometime. The National Cancer Institute recommends women 40 and older get a mammogram every one to two years.
Oh said doctors recommend that starting at 50, women should get an annual mammogram. If there is a family history of breast cancer, Oh said he recommends a woman have her first mammogram 10 years prior to when the family member found out she had the disease.
Today, Kuzniewski said she is feeling “fine,” despite undergoing regular rounds of chemotherapy, that caused her to lose her hair.
“April 21 my hair officially fell out,” she said. “Losing my hair was the hardest thing, because it is so noticeable. But it’s temporary.”
Kuzniewski will have her next chemotherapy treatment Tuesday. She finishes her six rounds of treatment July 17.
“The treatment lasts four hours,” she said. “They give me medicine to counteract the side effects of the chemotherapy, and three steroids. It works perfectly. Not once I’ve I felt the nausea, and I haven’t gotten sick.”
However, Kuzniewski said for several days after her treatments she suffers fatigue and joint pain.
“When I’m not in chemo I’m feeling fine,” she said. “After chemo, for five days I am wiped out. It makes you sleepy.”
Kuzniewski was feeling well enough to join several of her friends in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure walk on June 2, in Washington, D.C. Susan G. Komen raises money for breast cancer research and education.
“My friends truly stepped up to the plate,” she said. “We raised $3,200 between the eight of us.”
Finally, Kuzniewski, a stay-at-home mom, credits her husband, Steven, and their three children, Megan, 10, Matthew, 8 — both of whom attend Walkersville Elementary School — and Andrew, 4, for keeping her strong. It is clear from the children’s art work that adorns the walls, and the family pictures that line the staircase, that the love of her family has been instrumental in her recovery.
“Now that it’s summer the kids will be a good diversion,” she said.