What does a cancer survivor look like? Are they skinny, do they have hair? Do they look sick? Are they young or old? My name is Susan Hilburger and I’m a brain tumor survivor. Not only did I survive the deadliest type of brain tumor, stage 4 glioblamstoma, but I’m here to share my story of survivorship.
I’m 41 years old and a native of Buffalo, NY. When I tell people that I’m from Buffalo they automatically think - lots of snow, freezing cold temperatures, the Buffalo Bills and (yes we never won the Super Bowl) and of course chicken wings. Despite these perceptions, Buffalo is a great city and it was a wonderful place to grow up. Everyone knows each other and family and faith were our main priority.
I attended the State University of New York at Buffalo. After I graduated from UB with a duel degree in Management Information Science and Psychology I accepted an IT project management position with Pepsico outside of NYC where I worked for 11 years. During my lunch hour, I was able to take yoga classes on-site. I fell in love with the practice from the first day I took the class. I decided I wanted to become a teacher. In 2005, I got certified to teach where I juggled my full time job and teaching yoga at night.
I wanted to get away from the stress of New York City life so I decided to move to Las Vegas to take a job for a major casino company. My best friend from Buffalo was living in Las Vegas and helped me with the transition. The transition from moving from NYC to Las Vegas was pretty seamless and I was happy to make Las Vegas my home.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2011, I had a grand mal seizure in my bedroom. My parents were visiting from Buffalo and immediately called 911 for assistance. The paramedics arrived and transported me to the emergency room at Saint Rose Hospital. The doctors did a CAT scan and found a brain tumor on the left parietal side of my brain.
The medical diagnosis was unsettling to me because my older sister Lisa , mother of three young children and my grandfather passed away from a GBM brain tumor. I was afraid but ready to face the challenge ahead. I knew the severity of the disease having seen what my sister went through and the medical treatment that would be required to keep the cancer from spreading.
A emergency room doctor at Saint Rose Hospital recommended a highly regarded neurosurgeon in the Las Vegas area who performed many craniotomies on both adults and children. The neurosurgeon he recommended was Dr. Kelly Schmidt. (I call her my angel because she saved my life.) Two days after my brain tumor diagnosis at Saint Rose Hospital, Dr. Schmidt performed a 5 hour surgical craniotomy removing a cancerous tumor on the left side of my brain. My tumor was approximately seven centimeters in diameter. I stayed in the hospital for five days after the surgery was performed and began a rehabilitation program that lasted about two weeks.
Shortly thereafter, I went to The Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada and met with Dr. Matthew Swartz for a radiation treatment plan and Dr. Anthony Nyguen for oncology/hemocology .Before my radiation and chemotherapy treatment could begin the tissue samples would be sent to MD Anderson and the UCLA Medical Center to determine the grade and type of cancer I had. Pathology reports came back indicated that I had a grade-4 glioblastoma tumor.
Glioblastoma tumors can spread quickly and are the most invasive type of brain tumor. Due to the severity of a GMB-4, I needed to act immediately to keep the tumor from spreading.
Doctor Schwartz and Doctor Nyguen immediately started me on a chemotherapy plan which consisted of Temodar and radiation treatments that lasted approximately six weeks. Temodar is used for combatting glioblastoma and is often paired with radiotherapy for optimal results. After radiation, I continued to use Temodar for approximately two years. After I completed my treatment Doctor Schwartz and Doctor Nyguen said you’re done with your treatment move on with your life. After going through my illness, I was very nervous because I didn’t know what was next for me. I had fear that my cancer would come back. I decided to use my inner strength to forge ahead and believe in myself that I’m a survivor and I will beat this disease. I changed many aspects of my life that didn't serve me physically, spiritually and mentally. I changed my diet, I got rid of my stressful job, I found gratitude in the smallest things, I prayed and meditated and I was determined to help other cancer survivors.
In Fall of 2014, I married my husband Juan Carlos and on September 13, 2021 I delivered my beautiful and healthy baby girl named Gianna. I call Gianna my miracle baby after weeks of radiation and enduring years of chemotherapy treatments. I truly never thought I could carry a child after all the treatments I had. I was a high risk patient but my pregnancy went well and I didn’t have any complications. I taught yoga throughout my pregnancy up to 2 weeks before Gianna was born. She is now 20 months old!
Since my diagnosis, I focus on my two passions yoga and nutrition. Currently, I teach yoga throughout the Vegas Valley at studios, corporations, private classes and gyms. This includes The Caring Place. The caring place provides no-cost services such as massage, yoga, reiki, healing bells, support groups etc, to empower and educate cancer survivors and their loved ones. I was a patient at The Caring Place when I was diagnosed and one year later I was blessed to be able to teach other cancer survivors. I have been teaching there for the last 6 years.
So to sum up, cancer is an awful disease, I know it first hand; however, it’s not a death sentence. We need to continue to fight to find a cure. We need more organizations like The Caring Place that help cancer patients heal without being confined to a hospital.
Although cancer knocked me down, I found my inner strength to get back up and survive. As I look back on the last 6 1/2 years since my diagnosis, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I would have not gotten married or had Gianna. I wouldn’t have recognized the pure importance of the little things, family, friends, nature, deep love and peace.
I recently found this quote: "Surviving cancer is not the end of a gruesome story. It is the beginning of a beautiful one!"
I tell all my cancer survivors and all survivors out there to continue to fight, continue to believe and never ever give up hope!