Susan Ripka, a busy mother of 5-year-old twin girls, just didn’t
feel right. She’d been dealing with recurring digestive issues but when she noticed blood in her stool, she made an appointment to see NorthShore gastroenterologist Laura Bianchi, MD. At the appointment, Dr. Bianchi recommended a screening colonoscopy, an outpatient procedure that would ultimately save Susan’s life.
At only 43, Susan was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Thankfully, Susan’s cancer was discovered at its earliest stage and after surgery performed by Joseph Muldoon, MD, Susan is now cancer free.
Here, she tells us about her experience at NorthShore, why she strongly recommends seeking medical
advice if something doesn’t feel right and how a difficult diagnosis renewed her outlook on life:
What stood out most about your treatment at NorthShore and your experience with Dr. Bianchi and Dr. Muldoon?The
entire process, from the colonoscopy to surgery, was very smooth and well organized at NorthShore. Dr. Bianchi was very patient, thorough and informative during the process. She also had a personal, caring approach that helped keep me at ease.
blessed to have Dr. Muldoon as my surgeon. He came highly recommended and I felt very confident in his skill and approach to my surgery.
What does your care plan look like going forward? How often will you continue to be screened?Right
now, I am continuing follow-up appointments with Dr. Muldoon, and since the pathology report came back negative, I will only require annual screenings.
What would you tell other women your age who are experiencing unusual digestive issues?After hearing my story, women have told me about their own symptoms and I always strongly recommended they seek an evaluation.
What would you tell someone who is afraid to have a colonoscopy performed either out of fear of pain or
embarrassment?I tell people the process and procedure is much simpler than they would expect. I also share how important it is to work through that fear because in my case it saved my life.
What’s next for you and your family?
What do you look forward to the most? I have a renewed outlook on life. I look forward to watching my kids grow up and spending as much time with my family as possible!
What did you learn through this experience?I learned that God is in control of my life. He demonstrated love and care through orchestrating events that revealed the cancer early and set me on a path with the most highly skilled medical team. I believe each staff member, nurse, doctor (namely
Dr. Bianchi and Dr. Muldoon) were a gift from God. I only need to remember this experience and I am thankful and praising God for what He did for me and hope He blesses all the hands that helped me!
Cancer runs in her family but at only 24, Kayla Redig’s family and doctors weren’t
ready to believe that cancer could be responsible for her sleepless nights, exhaustion and days of just “feeling off.” Kayla, however, knew there was something wrong. After finding a lump in her breast, she pushed for further testing. When the
diagnosis came back as breast cancer, she was upset but not surprised.
From the beginning, Kayla told her family that she didn’t want to hate the chemo treatments that would be responsible for saving her life, so she decided to celebrate
them instead. For Kayla and her friends and family, chemo became Theme-o, themed parties and celebrations surrounding each treatment. Fittingly, superheroes came first, followed by a prom-themed chemo session and even a Blackhawks-themed parade on the way
to her final treatment. Everyone dressed up and everyone celebrated.
Here, Kayla tells us why she found it so important to celebrate during breast cancer treatment and how the love she felt during treatment gave her the strength to fight cancer
and embrace a new direction in life:
Where did your journey to diagnosis begin? Cancer runs in my family. A year before I was diagnosed, I had genetic testing done and found out I had the BRCA 2 gene. So I knew I had a genetic
disposition and a family history of it but I never gave it much thought. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I was always complaining about how tired I felt. My friends noticed how “off” I was and thought I was depressed. I wasn’t sleeping through
the night because I had intense night sweats; I figured that my lack of sleep was to blame for my tiredness. About two weeks after that, I found a lump in my left breast.
You were only 24 when you sought out a doctor’s advice. What
were you being told by family, friends and doctors before you received your diagnosis?When I found the lump I called my mom and two of my friends but no one was worried. One even called me dramatic and told me to go to sleep. The more friends
I told the more I heard, “Get it checked out but I’m sure it’s nothing.”
When I first saw my gynecologist she was hesitant to prescribe further testing because of my age but decided to move forward because of my family
history. When I had the ultrasound done, they were able to rule out a cyst but, again, they hesitated before doing a mammogram because of my age. About a minute into my mammogram the tech said, “You need to see one of our breast surgeons immediately.”
First thing the next morning, I was with Dr. Katherine Yao having a biopsy. She was the first person who didn’t
shuffle me along. Instead, she said, “I’ll be honest with you—this looks and feels a lot like cancer to me.”
What went through your head when you were told it was breast cancer after all?If you’re in touch with your body, I think you just know when something is wrong. So that combined with how off I’d
been feeling … I can’t really say I was surprised. Tears fell immediately but I wasn’t surprised. I remember being driven to where my parents were and talking to Dr.Yao on the phone, hearing more information and what to expect. When I finally
got to my parents, I burst into tears all over again. It wasn’t until I heard my mom say that they were going to move back to Illinois right away that the reality of the situation really hit me. You have to move across the country for me? Whoa. And seeing
my father break down in tears … I started seeing the impact my health was having on others and all I could think about was the damage this disease was causing.
But you wanted to try to keep positive, so where did the idea for Theme-o
come from? After I reached the halfway point with chemo, my health really started to deteriorate. My body was worn out. I was an emotional mess and my spirit was in a bad place. From day one, I had said that I never wanted to hate chemo because
chemo was my partner in the fight. But suddenly I was dreading each treatment and I wanted to stop going. I wanted to stop fighting. With what little energy I had left, I realized I had two choices: Give up or make a drastic change.
Up until then,
all of my treatments had involved at least six friends or family members spending time with me but that was just talking. I decided I needed to make my treatments into parties and, like all good parties, they had to have themes. Chemo became Theme-o. It was
during the darkest time in my life that Theme-o was born.
How did you decide on themes?I shared the idea with my friends and family and told them to start throwing themes at me. We formed a solid list from that. My father
insisted that “Superheroes” be the first theme because he had seen a Superman costume with built-in muscles and wanted to wear it. Before each treatment, we would have the next theme decided.
What were the reactions from people
at your appointments?When we showed up at the hospital dressed as superheroes everyone was amused but also quite confused. There were many “okay … why?” looks thrown our way before we explained the situation. A lot of people
poked their heads in my room because they had to see for themselves. We took pictures with other patients; it was fun to see them light up when they saw us. Once people heard what we were doing, the next question was always: “What are you wearing next
It was amazing to see the community that formed around Theme-o. My whole school participated, many folks at the hospital and friends and family from all over the world dressed up to show their support. I don’t think many people
look forward to chemo but I sure grew to. We had a lot of fun with it!
you most about the entire journey, from diagnosis and now to recovery?The whole experience was a lesson of the power of love. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when we all work together and are fueled by love. From my family to complete
strangers, I had everyone rallying alongside me. This has been the most challenging path I’ve ever found myself on but I was able to see it through because of all of the love I was given. I never felt like I was doing it alone. The beautiful thing about
the strength of love is it shows no sign of running out. I am still fueled by love every day.
What did you find most challenging about the experience?The most challenging thing for me was how my family and others I love were/are
still affected by this. I hated seeing them suffer because of my suffering. I hate thinking of all the tears that were shed on my behalf. A lot of lives were changed because of this.
What advice would you give to other women facing
a breast cancer diagnosis?Find ways to celebrate yourself. Your body is being dragged through the gutter and will undergo a ton of changes in a very short period of time. I created a “Pretty Committee” that was in charge of making
sure I still felt beautiful and feminine throughout. Get a makeover, take a Look Good, Feel Better class, buy something sparkly—you’re still beautiful and you’re still you. Little earrings and cute pajama bottoms can go a long way.
Along with celebrating you, celebrate everything else too. Every little benchmark you hit or appointment you get through is worth celebrating. We had a Christmas in July party to celebrate finishing my first round of chemo and a big dinner at the halfway
point. I had a pre-op party and a post-radiation blow out. No matter how small or silly it may seem, celebrate it! Make a big deal out of every moment you get through. People will be happy to join you. If you can’t find joy, create it.
next? What’s happening now? What do you hope to achieve?I just had my final reconstruction surgery at the end of September and it feels amazing knowing I don’t have more surgeries looming. Before surgery I took a new job with a company
based in Los Angeles called Reimagine and am so excited to resume work with them once I have recovered. Reimagine offers an evidence-based, online live class that helps patients and caregivers take
their lives back from cancer. They have built an entire community of support to help people thrive in the face of adversity. I knew early on that I wanted to surround myself with other patients and survivors and change the experience of cancer for every life
it touches. It’s incredible to have found others who wake up every morning wanting to do the same. I’m very blessed to have a career that is fueled not only by life experience but also love. Every bit of love I’m given I try to pour back
into the community of survivors, fighters and caregivers.
For more information on Reimagine, click here.
Katie Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital, followed by four months of chemotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin treatments at Evanston Hospital.
Before her own diagnosis, and in memory of her best friend who lost her own life to the disease in 2006, Katie and her family would make a point of cheering on the participants of the three-day breast cancer walk in Chicago armed with motivational signs
and licorice. This, and her own breast cancer journey, would later inspire Katie and her sister to found
The Licorice Project, an organization devoted to spreading joy during a difficult time and bringing together breast cancer patients, survivors, families and friends.
In part two of her NorthShore patient story, Katie shares one of the most difficult but important moments following her breast cancer diagnosis:
I’m often asked, “How and when did you tell your kids you had breast cancer?” My husband and I agreed
that we wanted to be open and truthful about everything as soon as my diagnosis was confirmed. We turned to my breast surgeon, Dr. Winchester at NorthShore University HealthSystem, for advice on what to say to our three middle school-aged boys. We planned
a family meeting and decided that I would do the talking.
I began the conversation by telling them that I’d found a lump in my chest, to which my youngest shouted, “You’re pregnant!?” When I said, “No,” he answered, “Phew!” I told them that the lump was in my breast and they wanted to know immediately if it was
cancer. When I said that it was, they all began to cry. It broke my heart to see them so sad and frightened. Holding their hands, I assured them that the doctors were very encouraged and had given me a good prognosis since the lump was very small and I had
caught it early. I explained to them that there would be many steps, tests and procedures. I explained that it would take time and patience but that when I finished the therapy, I would be okay. Of course, many questions followed:
“Are you going to die?”
“Will you lose your hair?”
“Will you get a wig?”
“Who knows about this already?”
“Can we tell people?”
“What should we say?”
“Does this mean we can get breast cancer?”
“Are people going to bring us dinners?”
My husband and I answered the questions as best as we could, which, of course, led to even more questions. Since school was about to end for summer vacation, we assured the boys that all their summer plans would stay intact. We wanted to keep their lives
as “normal” as possible. The family meeting concluded with lots of hugs and kisses.
Telling our children that I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do; however, it was also one of my proudest moments because of the strength and composure that I maintained during such a difficult conversation. There’s no right or wrong way
to explain a cancer diagnosis to children. Each family will deal with it in their own unique way and to the best of their ability.
When the fourth biopsy in four years revealed some of the cancerous cells were now more aggressive than during the previous four years of active surveillance, I found it very hard to accept that the other shoe had actually dropped. I'd been sailing along
with a Gleason 3 + 3, the least aggressive prostate cancer category. I hoped/believed the numbers would stay that way as I lived through the rest of my 70s and into my 80s and who knows how long from there. After all, my father had lived with prostate cancer
and died from unrelated issues at 86.
As with so many other men, I had the first biopsy after a PSA test suggested a possible problem. In my case the PSA had risen slowly over a decade from 1.4 to 3.7, but being 67 at the time and research changing some of the previous thinking about PSA levels
in older men, the initial urological surgeon and I decided a biopsy was a reasonable option.
My fears after getting the news from the fourth biopsy were:
Navigating My Treatment Options
The urologist who had been following me urged surgery (he performs robotic prostatectomy) and I provisionally scheduled the operation for six weeks hence. I needed time for the biopsy site to heal, digest the diagnosis, and collect and process more
As a dentist turned health reporter, my almost 40 years as a health journalist turned out to be a mixed blessing as I tried to intelligently navigate the daunting amount of often contradictory and confusing information, even for a health professional. I
discovered one of my greatest strengths as a reporter—the ability to thoroughly and unemotionally research virtually any health topic—failed me dismally because this time I was too emotionally involved. I would read the same sentence or paragraph over and
over or talk at great length to trusted sources and come away even more confused. Yes, get the cancer out. No, you can safely keeping watching. Surgery? Robotic or open? Radiation? But what type? Or perhaps one of the less tested treatment options? You can
imagine the toll this emotional roller coaster took on my family: Arline my wife of 41 years and my two sons.
Finding My Advocate: A Six Week Journey
As the six weeks dwindled to two, I still felt uncertain—and frightened—about my decisions and options. While agonizing on the phone one night with my older son he said, “Stop it, Dad! More than most, you are in a position to find one voice you can trust who
can guide you to a decision that you and mom can live with. Find that voice."
I did: Dr.
Charles Brendler, Co-Director of Northshore's John and Carol Walter Center for Urological Health. I was referred to Dr. Brendler by a close personal friend of mine, who is also a physician and serves as a department head at a major Chicago medical center.
He told me Dr. Brendler was the person he would see if he were in my position. Now I understand why.
During the nearly two hours Dr. Brendler spent with Arline and me, he painstakingly reviewed my medical records, gently and carefully examined me, and, for most of the two hours, engaged with us in heartfelt conversation. He reassured both of us, spoke caringly
about our feelings on the personal and intimate issues unleashed by prostate cancer and its treatment, and offered compassionate understanding and objective advice.
Three decisions emerged from our meeting. Two involved additional confirmation of the status of my prostate cancer, one via MRI (Dr. Brendler supported my desire to have the scan) and the other through a second opinion of the interpretation of my four biopsies.
The third and most important was the deciding to accept Dr. Brendler’s recommendation to see a urologic surgeon, who, because of his unparalleled skill in performing open prostatectomies, would be the best fit for me.
When Arline and I exited Dr Brendler's office and walked through the parking lot, we looked at each other and breathed the first sigh of relief in more than a month because we knew we had found peace with my prostate cancer journey. We followed through on
each of the decisions and three weeks after our fateful meeting my prostate was removed by the surgeon Dr. Brendler recommended. The cancer was locally contained and completely removed.
Thanks to active surveillance, I had four years without treatment. And thanks in large part to Dr. Brendler, I remain totally continent and am on the road back to sexual function seven months post-surgery. I’m grateful beyond words that when my son urged
me to find the one voice I could trust, the voice I heard was Charles Brendler's.