You know those serendipitous moments when you meet people just on a whim and by the end of your conversation you’ve become a teary-eyed snot-fest? No? Well that’s what happened to me when I sat down with Sue Armato, Executive Director of the Cancer Support Center in Mokena, Illinois.
I went to talk with her about teaching a vision board workshop for the cancer patients, survivors and caregivers that the Cancer Support Center supports – and what I got was so much more. Sue started telling me about her own battle with cancer and with all the stories I’ve heard, I think hers was the most horrific, and you know what? The things she turned it into was nothing short than incredibly inspiring and I had to ask her to be on the podcast to share it with you.
For people who are battling cancer, survivors and caregivers, you can reach out to the Cancer Support Center here – as we talked about in the podcast/video, there are so many services they offer to you!
Misty: Hey, everyone! Welcome to the Love Your Life with Misty podcast. I am super, super, super excited to share, with you guys, a wonderful woman that I actually just got the chance to meet, not long ago. I have Sue Armato, here, with me, who’s going to share some of her journey with you. The way that I met Sue was actually, kind of, just by chance.
If you know me, you know I’m part of an organization called 100+ Women Who Care in Southern Will County. Basically, it’s a group of women who come together, quarterly, to nominate and vote on a 501c3 nonprofit that serves people in the Will County area. We get to vote and decide who we’re going to nominate, and who wins, basically. And then we all donate $100 to that chosen charity.
This last meeting, the Cancer Support Center in Mokena was actually… Well, I guess, the whole organization was the recipient of our donation. And just by whim, I started asking Sue about vision board workshops, and we got to talking about her own journey. And just on a whim, I was like, “You know what? Would you be open to being on a podcast about your journey,” because it was so amazing. And it was so emotional, and she just tells it with such passion and feeling. And it’s not something that people actually hear a whole lot about, and I feel like it would be doing the world a disservice to not let her journey and her… with all the things that she did and all the things she rose from, be heard.
So, Sue, I mean, I’m super excited that you agreed to come on and spend some time with us, and of your afternoon and different things. I know you’re so super busy.
Sue: No, it’s my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you.
Misty: You’re so welcome. You’re so welcome. Before we get into a little bit more about you, your journey and different things, tell me about your morning routine. What does that normally look like? Or what did it look like this morning?
Sue: This morning, I got up and I took our four dogs out, to go to the bathroom, because they all
sleep with me. And so, got them out, took a shower, dried my hair. I do a 10-minute morning meditation. It’s a, kind of, starting your day with a positive framework, so I did that. And then went down and had my hard-boiled egg, and jumped in the car and went to work.
Misty: That’s so awesome. You have four dogs that sleep with you?
Sue: Yeah, but they’re all little. They’re awesome.
Misty: Okay, well, at least they’re little. I have two big ones, and they’re just too much. I’m like, “You guys need to go downstairs on the couch.”
Sue: Exactly. Sometimes my husband leaves the bed, to go on the chair in our room, because he can be too crowded.
Misty: Oh, my God.
Sue: I adore them.
Misty: Kick the husband out. Let the dogs in. I totally get it.
Sue: It’s all priorities; right?
Misty: Absolutely. Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about your background. I left out that you
were the executive director at the Cancer Support Center, but tell us a little bit about everything. What do you do there? What brought you there? And then we’ll hop right into your background and what really happened.
Sue: Yeah, it sounds great. My background is I am executive director of the Cancer Support Center. I’m just in… starting my sixth year here, and what that means is that I really work to advance our mission. And our mission is to make sure that anybody who has cancer is not walking on that journey alone, that they have somebody with them who can help them navigate the ups and downs and the difficulties, and, also, to celebrate the good things that happen along the way, when you’re dealing with a cancer journey.
I have a BA and a master’s from University of Chicago, and my whole life, I’ve always been dedicated to trying to help those who are in need. So, I’ve been an executive director for over 25 years, now; before, doing work in poverty issues and education issues, things like that. This is where I landed, after my own 20-month struggle with cancer and the treatments I had, and, kind of, being rebuilt from all of that. I like to say that being at the center, it makes sense out of all the nonsense I went through with my own cancer journey. I’m just happy to be able to try to make people’s lives a little easier and to help them stay focused, in a positive way, and find that inner strength to fight, often, the fight of your life.
Misty: Absolutely. I know you had a really horrific 20 months. When we talked about it… You guys don’t know, but when Sue and I met, I think I, literally, cried the entire meeting. I’m like, “This is so unprofessional of me, but I can’t help it.” It was so moving. It was just horrific, what you had actually gone through. I know it was hard for you to share, and I know I’m springing it on you, to come on of podcast and be like, “Can you share it, again, so that people could learn from it?” Would you tell us more about your journey and everything that happened?
Sue: Yeah, absolutely. Part of why I think it’s important to share these journeys is that, often, when you’re diagnosed, you feel like you’re all alone and no one else has ever gone through this. You’re really frightened of that, the whole concept. I hope, by sharing my story… and I’m going to be really, really open about it because I also think we have to be able to be open about these things that we go through, in order for others to know, again, that they can do it. They can do it.
For me, I was experiencing a lot of pain and unusual discharge. I had a gynecological cancer. I ended up having cervical cancer, but it took them about three months to figure out what was going on because I was in really intense pain, both kind uterine pain, as well as rectal pain. They couldn’t figure out what was going on, and then, one doctor… After seeing multiple different types of doctors, one of the doctors sent me for a CT scan, and that showed a seven-centimeter-by-six-centimeter tumor that was coming off of my cervix, down.
Normally, you have your vagina, and usually, cervical cancer goes up into the uterus. For me, it was on the side and dropped down. If you think about women’s anatomy, there isn’t much space there because when you come down from the cervix, you have the vagina here and the rectum here. My tumor was laying in between them, and then, if you think of stretching that, six centimeters, that’s why it was creating so much pain and why I was flipping back and forth, during my different exams to get the diagnosis.
When I was told I had that, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my daughter to finish her piano lesson, and the doctor, my primary care doctor, said, “It looks like you have cancer. We’re going to have to go for a biopsy and figure out how extensive it is. I think, like many of us, whenever we’re given traumatic news, I couldn’t hear anything. My world just stopped. It just stopped, and I didn’t know what I was going to do or how I would manage this. I had… I think she was 13, and a 16-year-old, at the time, two daughters, amazing daughters. They’re at that time when they’re supposed to pull away, maturing, and I knew this was going to be difficult for them.
I went to the oncologist. I had to have a biopsy done, and in the process of doing the biopsy, they ended up ripping open my rectum. I had to be admitted into the hospital, for that to heal up. It was when I woke up from that biopsy that they said, “You definitely have cervical cancer. We’re going to have to really start moving on this quickly.” I ended up going through six weeks of radiation, so that means, five days a week, I was going for radiation at Loyola Hospital. They did a great job.
Radiation, it can be really difficult on your body. For me, they made up a cast that my lower half of my body could be in and tattooed two spots on my abdomen, so that, every day that I went in, they could line up the radiation machine properly. There would be… Each time the radiation machine went around my torso, it would send 37 different radiation points into my body, so really, by the end of two weeks of that, I had burns on my skin. It was really sore. I had bad diarrhea. My bladder was not working as well, and I had four more weeks to go. This isn’t unique to me. We all go through this, when we have, especially, torso radiation.
I also had six weeks of chemotherapy, and that’s a day of sitting in the hospital and having an IV. It makes you very cold and metallic-tasting. For me, the day after chemo is okay because they fill you with a lot of steroids and things, painkillers, but then, the day after that, I could not even get out of bed. I was, really, honestly, afraid that I was dying from the chemotherapy, but they ended up giving me some other medicines, to help navigate that.
I went through the six weeks, chemo, six weeks, radiation, and then, a month later, had a 12-hour surgery. They wait a month because the radiation is still working, for up to four weeks, so they are trying to destroy the tumor. Also, it had turned out that I had a number of lymph nodes that were also infected with cancer.
I, then, had my 12-hour surgery, which included a full exenteration, so a complete removal of all my female parts, which also meant they took out most in my vagina. I’m going to use the words that we… to describe these things because we have to be okay talking about this. Then I had to have an artificial vagina made, which the plastic surgeon came in, during that surgery, to do. He took part of my abdominal wall and then sewed up one side to create, like, a tube and then reattach that to what was left of my… this much of a vagina.
Also, they had, kind of, destroyed my rectum, so internally, they had to sew that up. Then, the only way to allow that to heal, that incision to heal, was they had to give me a temporary ileostomy bag. What that is is they cut a hole in your abdomen, and pull out part of your intestine, and attach that to the surface of your abdomen, open that up and then all your fecal matter comes… gets put in a bag that you have to empty and clean and things, so that there’s nothing going through the rest of your intestines, so that they can heal. I had to have that for three months.
Of course, it was a pretty extensive surgery. I was in the hospital for a little while, and it took a lot of slow movement to recover from. Then, when they reversed my ileostomy bag, which was exciting, they took the bag off. They dropped the intestine back down, and then two weeks after that, I developed a fistula, which is when your intestine gets a hole in it. Your body, really miraculously, builds almost, like, a little tunnel to the surface of your body, to get the fecal matter out of your abdomen because if it stays in there, you’re going to die or be really sick.
I ended up having a fistula form, from where they took the ostomy off, and then, over the next couple of days, I developed four more fistulas. I had five fistulas, four on my abdomen and one was in my new vagina. That was really overwhelming and scary, not anything that we ever talked about having happen. It’s really hard to have four bags hanging off of your abdomen, collecting fecal matter, so you can still continue to do things.
For that, to try to fix that, I ended up going on 14 weeks of total… I think it’s peritoneal nutrition. They put a PICC line in here, and then you’re on IV nutrition for 12 hours a day, carrying a bag, and it’s being pumped. Then there’s no eating or no drinking. That’s to give my intestines full rest, so that they could heal up. It was originally going to be four weeks. One healed, and then we did a couple more weeks, and another one healed. I was like, “Let’s do it as long as we need to, to get it done.” I didn’t really want to have, yet, another surgery, but I did end up having one more surgery because one didn’t heal. Then, in that process, the doctor was able to reverse that and fix that.
All that was happening, really, over a 20-month period, a lot of ups and downs where, like, “We made it through.” We got the cancer. We did everything we needed to do. The good news from the surgery is they couldn’t see any cancer left, so that was great. Then we had all these problems, with everything else happening, and so, it was a long, long journey for me and, really, very hard for my family, my daughters, my husband, my mom, my siblings. It’s very hard on everybody.
That’s my long story. I hope I didn’t go on too much.
Misty: Oh, my gosh. No, no, no, absolutely not. The whole story is, actually, what needed to be shared. That was, actually, going to be where I was going next, is you’re so normal and so courageous, really, too, when you are sharing. You’re using those words that people don’t necessarily use because they’re taboo, and people don’t want to talk about vaginal cancers. They don’t want to talk about rectums. Nobody has a rectum. We don’t talk about it.
When it comes to those things, what would you really… From someone who has been on that journey, maybe talking to somebody who thinks they might have something wrong or know somebody who might have something wrong, what would you guide them… to help them be more vulnerable with their journey and talking about these things? What would you want to share with them?
Sue: Yeah, it is really true that people are not comfortable talking about these things. I find it really, really interesting that we are so afraid about talking about our sex parts, as well as, just, natural digestive things. I can say my one brother, he’s great, but any time I would say the word, “my vagina,” he’d be like, “Stop. Stop. I can’t handle that” I would just look at him and say, “Okay, but you have a daughter, and you have a wife. It’s okay to say that word.”
I think that, first and foremost, you have to be vulnerable and open with the people that you really trust. I think that’s first, saying it to your spouse or your partner, being able to use those words and signal, to that person, that it’s okay to use those words. Even with my mom, I had to be like, “It’s okay, Mom, to say those words. It is what it is, right? How can we possibly work together, to win this fight, if we’re afraid of using words?”
For me, a lot of it was picking safe people, initially, to tell what was happening, and then giving them permission; to be like, “No, really. I’m okay with you talking about this or using these words with me.” Along the way, you realize who you can’t… who isn’t going to be comfortable with them and with being that open. Then you know not to be vulnerable with people.
Where I’m at now, I’m like, “Hey, this is part of this of my story.” It doesn’t define me, as a person, because there’s a lot of things that define me, but part of Sue Amato’s story is I had cervical cancer, and I fought a fight. I survived, and I’m okay sharing that story.
Misty: Yeah, and it’s something that, you said, needs to be talked about. People need to know because for those people who are feeling like there might be something wrong or things that
need to get checked out, what would you… What kind of encouragement would you give them, if they’re too embarrassed to make that appointment, to go even get the things checked out? I know you said, in your story, that you went to multiple doctors because you knew something was wasn’t right.
Sue: I think that’s the key. You have to listen to yourself. I think there’s that sixth sense that we all have, that is nagging at us, that there’s something wrong, and we have to listen. We have to be willing to, even if we don’t know, even if you just go to the doctor and say, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but something’s not feeling right. I’m having this symptom and that symptom.” Start it gently, but you have to listen to that voice and keep pushing.
There were other things, along the way. It would be like, “Oh, you have an anal fissure. That’s the problem, so do this and this.” Or, “Oh, you have C. Diff. That’s the problem. Do this and this,” and I would do this and that, for a little bit. Then I was still right where I… I was still having all these things, and so, I had to keep going back and saying, “Well, no. I don’t think we fixed it. Maybe those were issues, but there’s still something wrong.” I think, believing in that inner voice and listening to it…
If you’re not strong enough to act on it, find that one person. We usually all have a somebody. Turn to that person, and ask, “Can you help me with this.” Sometimes, people aren’t brave enough to do it, themselves, but need an advocate to go with them to the doctor and be the person who’s like, “Well, she’s having this and this and this.” I think that can be another way to manage that. I think, as much as we can be afraid of these things, we also have to think about that, if we don’t take care of them and if we don’t listen, it’s only going to get worse. The longer we wait on anything we know is wrong, the longer we wait, the worst it’s going to be for us.
For me, I mean, I know I would talk to a couple of my girlfriends, like, “It’s just perimenopausal. It’s just that.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I’ve never heard anybody else talk about these weird things. It was that nagging voice in my head, as I was trying get the symptoms… I was getting feedback from people, like, “Oh, it’ll be okay. It’s nothing,” but then there was that nagging voice in my head, like, “No, I think it’s more than that.”
I would just really encourage people to listen to that voice, and lean on whatever strengths you have, to move forward. If you’re a prayerful person, pray for the strength to go to the doctor. Or, if you know you’re shy and need a buddy, grab your buddy and go. Really, really listen.
Misty: Yeah, and that’s, I think, is so important, is just listening to your own intuition, like you were saying. Your body is your own inner guidance system, and sometimes, we let all these other things pull us and push us into different things that we know isn’t right.
I’ve heard so many stories of people who, just, persistently, were like, “There’s something wrong,” and they go to doctor, until somebody found whatever was happening. I think that’s absolutely amazing advice.
For people who are, maybe, just starting their cancer journey or newly diagnosed, anything, from
your journey, what would you like people to know about cancer patients, about their needs, what goes on in their mind? Especially for caregivers, how to best care for them, or friends, family, how to relate to them, like I said, from your own personal experience and your own journey?
Sue: Sure. I think it’s pretty basic. I think, a lot of times, when someone’s been diagnosed with
Cancer, it causes us to think of our own mortality. People who loved me we’re thinking about their own mortality, when they heard about my cancer, or they’d immediately think about, “She’s going to die.” It makes everybody, like, on eggshells, and people are afraid to say anything or ask anything. I think the absolute best thing you can do is to be open and to allow yourself to be vulnerable, by saying to the cancer patient, “Hey, how are you doing? I mean, really, how are you doing? What can I do to help you? I think, for a lot of people in my life, it was that. They wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do. Sometimes, it would come back on me, like, “Oh, well, what do you want me to do. I mean I’m happy to do anything.”
For the cancer patient, it is so overwhelming, when you get diagnosed. You’re being thrown into these treatments, and they make you feel poorly. Your brain is foggy. There’s this thing called “chemo brain,” which is totally true, where you can’t recall even basic things, and you’re just feeling like… It’s like you’re a double dose antihistamines or something. A lot of times, people would say to me, “Well, what can I do to help? What can I do to help?” In some ways, saying that is putting responsibility, then, on the person who is sick to come up with a solution.
I think we all know how to take care of people, right? We all know that if someone is sick, you can send them a card, or you can text them, “Thinking of you.” You can make a meal. You can
call and say, “Hey, do you want me to take your daughters to see a movie because I’m sure it’s stressful in the house,” or “You got four dogs. How about if I come and take the dogs for a walk?” I would encourage people who have a loved one, whether it’s a friend or a family member, who has cancer to reach out and do something. It can be, honestly, as small as a text every week. Just say, “Every week, I’m going to text this person I’m thinking about them” because that makes a huge difference for the person who’s sick.
The reality… My one daughter who was 16, at the time – this was in the middle of my treatment – she said, “Mom, I just feel so helpless, like I can’t do anything to… I can’t take the pain away. I can’t make you feel better. I’m a kid, and you’re an adult. My options are limited. I feel so helpless. It was just like she was paralyzed with her helplessness, and I was so grateful she said that to me because, then, we could talk about simple things she could do to help me. One of the things that was best, that she could do, was to come home from school and tell me about her day, tell me stories about what happened, because even though I’m fighting, I’m still her mom. Right? I still want to hear about her day, so don’t be afraid to come and tell me that. Keeping me connected to my regular world is super important.
I think, sometimes, we think we have to do these grand gestures, and we don’t. It’s, often, just put a card in the mail , just let the person know you’re thinking about them. My aunt sent, from Wisconsin, a prayer shawl that her church group made for me; just put it in the mail and sent it to me. I had friends who had… Obviously, dropping off meals is a very popular and wonderful, wonderful thing to do. I just think that the best thing that a caregiver, someone who loves you and cares about you, can do is just pick an action and do it. You can’t do anything wrong. There’s nothing. Bringing a plant over. It means so much.
There were a number of days where I, literally, would wake up and say, “I don’t know if I have the strength to do this, today. I don’t know if I can go for six hours of chemotherapy and radiation, today.” I was lucky. Friends sent me cards, and I put them up on my bedroom wall. I would look at that wall of cards, and I would say, “Today, I don’t have the energy, but I will get the energy from all those people who care about me, today.” That would motivate me, and really, it became a source of… I could feel it. I could, literally, feel the energy of the good wishes, and the texts, and the phone calls, and the cards. It made a difference, a huge difference.
Just do something that simple. You can’t solve it for the person. Don’t even try, and don’t feel bad that you can’t. You can bring hope, and you can share love and send that powerful energy that is
out there in the universe. You can send it to that person’s way.
Misty: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m glad that you actually mentioned sending the energy and different things because I know, when we had talked. you had already been doing some holistic modalities and different things, before you even knew anything about anything. Will you share
that? What was your inspiration for even picking those things up and how they helped
you through your treatments and different things? Those days when it was really tough what was happening?
Sue: Yeah. I think, for me. It’s funny that, a lot of times, I think our minds have coping skills, but we don’t always listen to them. I can remember going in for radiation, the first time. I’m a little claustrophobic. I hate elevators. When you go for radiation, you’re in a room. Obviously, there’s radiation in there, so they lock it down. I was noticing that the door was, like, this thick, when they closed it, and I was starting to feel like, “Oh, can I do this for 27 minutes? Can I lay
here and not move a muscle?” I could feel my breathing getting shallower and things like that. I’m like, “Okay, you can do this,” as I started talking myself up, like, “You can do this. Okay, you can do this. Alright, you can do this.”
Then, I don’t even know how it happened, but I started saying the “Be” word. A lot of times, people say, “Do you use your ‘I am’ statements, I am…’?” Well, I use the “Be” word, so I was like, “Okay, so you have to be brave. Be brave. Now, you have to be positive. Be positive, and be faithful. Be faithful. I started saying those things, over and over, to myself, “Be brave. Be positive. Be faithful. Be brave. Be positive. Be faithful.” It became my mantra, throughout the
whole journey; that anytime I felt that well of anxiety coming up, that I would start to say that, over and over. I would say it quietly, out loud, so my ears could hear it, as well as my mouth speaking it.
That’s one of those modalities of repeating a mantra that can help you be more positive. I didn’t
really think that, “Oh, this is why you’re going to do it,” but it worked. In that moment, on the radiation table, I would say those things, until my anxiety calmed down. It reminded me, that mantra reminded me of my core values and what I was going to do, right in that moment, so that was one of the things I did.
One of the other things I did was I would listen to the same George Winston CD, at nighttime. A lot of times, many cancer patients can’t sleep well at night, for different… You’re not feeling well. You’re in pain, anxiety. Maybe you’re feeling really sad. I found that I would play the same George Winston CD, over and over. I would listen to the different instruments. I would pick, like, “Okay, right now, you’re going to listen for the clarinet,” and I would just listen to that music, over and over, and get lost in the music. I was really doing music therapy because I was
incorporating the music, and instead of focusing internally, I was focusing externally on something that, in that music, is calming for me.
I found that I was doing a lot of coloring, and this was before those coloring books were popular. I pulled out the Little Mermaid coloring books from my girls, and I would just be coloring different ways, when I was feeling nervous. That’s art therapy. I’m using meditative things. I’m using different… I didn’t know about the Cancer Support Center there. I didn’t have that connection, and it’s interesting that a number of the tools that I was using, my head was just saying, “Do this.”
I knew a little bit about some of those things. My mom’s a Reiki Master, and I would have bad anxiety, the night before chemo because I had that terrible first chemo. I’d have to shake my hands out because there would be so much anxiety in my hands, so I’d have my mom come over and do Reiki. That really took the edge off, so I was lucky that she was in my life and had learned that, previously, and could come help me with that. We do Reiki, at the center, I mean, so it’s funny that so many of the things that I used, and just naturally… Another thing is I always went for walks. I would always, even if it was just to the corner and back, because I wasn’t feeling well. I knew as important to stay moving, and so, we do a lot of movement work, here, at the center.
I think, when you can implore those things… but a lot of it is you have to have the framework that, “I want to beat this. I’m in the fight.” You have to say, “I’m not just going to lay down and be a victim. I’m not going to just surrender. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get through this.” I think that’s the decision that each survivor has to make, along the way; right? At one point, you decide, “Am I going to feel sorry for myself,” because you absolutely have every right to feel sorry for yourself. Having cancer sucks. It just does. At the same time, you can either be lost in that negative downwards spiral, or you can say, “You know what? I’m just going do everything I can do. Whatever I can control, I’m going to control it. I’m going to just do the absolute best I can, and fight, because that’s what’s important to me.” Early on, that was the decision I made.
Not to say I didn’t have bad days, along the way, because we all do; right? We all can be fighting really well and just wake up, one day, and be like. “Oh.” Like I talked about, how I would wake up and “I just can’t do it, today.” Again, if you’re predetermining your mindset to be, at the end, “I’m going to fight for this,” I think it helps you move more quickly out of that negative space.
Misty: Absolutely, and I was actually thinking, as you were talking about it, you don’t even really need cancer, to really apply all those things. It’s so sad to even say, but a lot of people are dealing with some type of disease, now, whether it’s cancer, heart disease, a thyroid condition or whatever that can really just make them feel crappy. Having that mindset of, “No. You know what? I’m not going to feel crappy. This is something that is just something that I have to deal with, right now, and I have to figure out different ways around it and different ways to help my body heal itself, work on the things that I can control and then go from there,” so I’m really, really glad that you actually said that.
I know you mentioned a little bit about the Cancer Support Center and the different services that they offer. For people who, maybe, have had cancer for a while, or even don’t and know somebody who does, what are some of the things that are available to people with cancer, people who are survivors, people who are caregivers? I think there’s so many people who it affects, but I feel like services like Cancer Support Center and different places, they don’t even know, sometimes, that it exists and what’s available to them.
Sue: Yeah, absolutely, and I didn’t even really know that it existed, until after I was through with my journey and I realized that a place like this exists. There are these cancer wellness centers located all over the nation, and really, what the focus of cancer wellness centers is is trying to help people access tools.
I always think of it is we all have our toolkits, right, that we go through life with. Whenever you’re thrown a curveball – you’re talking about some difficulty, some hardship, especially that
we weren’t anticipating – we open our toolkit, and sometimes we don’t have the tools we need because we haven’t been on that part of our journey, yet. A place like the center will provide tools such as counseling, being able to talk this through, talking through some of your feelings, feeling overwhelmed.
Sometimes, you need a little tune-up, in order to have that more positive-like focus along the journey. There’s support groups. Support groups are great because, as much as everyone in my life loved me and was taking care of me, no one else really knew what it meant to be going through chemotherapy or radiation. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to tell everybody how awful I felt. They already felt bad enough for me. I didn’t want to throw all that on them, so having a group of people or a couple people who are on a similar journey as you, whatever your hardship is, it really can lighten the load. You can share ideas of how to beat it, together, or overcome those difficult days.
I think support groups are super good. We do a lot around fitness, gentle fitness, because movement… There’s a lot of research that shows that even just two minutes of fitness, two minutes of activity… If you’re in a rut and you just get up, do two minutes of running in place or two minutes of jumping, it, literally, resets your brain and how it’s thinking. Teaching people those things. Fitness is really good for healing. Our body needs blood, good blood flow, to heal better and to think better, so that fitness piece is something we do through yoga, different types of yoga and gentle movement, gentle Zumba, things like that
Nutrition is key. What we put in our bodies, it’s our fuel. There’s a lot of research, again, that if we’re eating more plant-based diets, more less-chemically-altered things, that it’s more what our
our cells need, to regrow. We try to help teach people how you can gently incorporate more of the plant-based foods. There’s certain spices that have healing properties for cancer. Turmeric, really big one, just one example, so we can try to help teach people those things, as well, through our nutrition programs. We have nutrition counselors who can help with that.
Then, another piece of what we do is around, really, body image. It’s really important that, when you look in the mirror, that the person looking back at you, that you recognize that person. I think of women. I was lucky. I didn’t lose all my hair when I went through chemotherapy, but a lot of people do. At our center, we give free wigs to people, and the idea with that is that… When you see yourself, at the beginning, it looks like…
We have makeup classes. It’s called “Look Good, Feel Better.” A lot of times, when you’re sick with cancer and other illnesses, you’ll get a grayer, kind of, jaundiced look to your skin. You just look at yourself. Then you feel like you don’t look very well. Learning how to apply makeup with that skin tone is a way of helping you see yourself, see that person looking back at you. Women lose their eyebrows, their eyelashes. How do you apply makeup so it looks like you still have that?
This idea of body image… I can say, when I was going through radiation, every day I went to the
Hospital, I always kind… I’m that super fancy, my hair, but I would take a shower. I’d blow dry my hair. I’d wear a nice outfit. Not fancy, but I didn’t put scrubs on, to go, or my jogging pants. For me, I wanted, when I walked through the hospital… You catch a glimpse of yourself in a window, right, your reflection. I wanted to recognize that person and not be like, “Oh.” I was neat, but I was putting out, on the outside, that I’m still me. I’m still Sue Armato, the woman, the wife, the daughter, the mother, the sister. One little bit of me is Sue Armato, the cancer patient, right now, but I’m not going to surrender all those other roles that I have; right?
Anyways, so, the center offers all of those things, and everything we offer – all centers are like this, they’re all offered free of charge. We can, literally, take people… I see it, every day, where people walk in, and they are about to surrender and give up. I mean, we’ve had people who are planning on ending their lives, because of where they’re at with their diagnosis, and by coming to the center, accessing some of my resources and getting the tools…
The tools are all about finding that inner strength, that inner calm that is always in us but, sometimes, gets overshadowed by fear. By doing that, we’ve been able to turn people around, where they’re living happily and productively. Many people say the highest quality they’ve ever had is now because they’re actually tending to those good parts of themselves that they hadn’t really focused on before.
Sue: That’s awesome. It’s such a great opportunity for someone who, like you said, is there. They’re just so sad, so depressed, so blindsided by their diagnosis or what their prognosis is. Really, because the diagnosis is one thing, but we tend to get the worst of the worst, sometimes, with doctors, like, “This is worst-case scenario.” Sometimes, they leave little room for hope. It’s a really amazing space that you guys get to provide, that space for people, and being able to be like, “Well, that’s their opinion. Here are some other things that you can do, that actually can help partner with your body and different things.”
Misty: I think it’s good, too, for caregivers, right, the people who love that patient, who take care of them, too, because it’s very hard. I think, sometimes, it’s harder on caregivers because caregivers, so much, you want to alleviate the pain and are so afraid of what is happening, and you have no control. It’s so limited, what a caregiver can do, that it can be so overwhelming, and you can feel so isolated in that role. Like I mentioned, my daughter, how she felt you.
I didn’t know, at the time, but my husband was so afraid that, on his drive home from work, he would stop at church, go and light a candle, every day. I had no idea he was doing that, but he was like, “My dad and my grandmother have passed away. I would go in and say, ‘Guys. Do some magic for your girl.’”
At the center, our center, we really are here to help; help the caregivers, also, find out what is their role, what can they do and how can they enjoy what they can of the person they love, who’s going through this, at the same. It’s a team; right? No one does these things on their own.
Misty: Yeah, absolutely. You’re another person that I talked to… Sorry. The caregivers are another… What are the other things that you offer at the center, for caregivers?
Sue: Yeah, for caregivers, we do a lot. We have caregiver support groups. We have individual therapy for caregivers. We also have a lot of things, like special education programs, where we’ll bring in different people to help them understand what they can be doing.
A lot of times, the caregiver is the one who’s, all of a sudden, having to take over all the responsibilities in the home, so we’ll offer some kind of financial classes, if they’re not used to taking care of those things. We have therapeutic massage, craniosacral massage and the Reiki. That’s often for caregivers because a lot of it is giving these positive channels, to rebalance the energy and to get the negative energy out, positive energy in, for our caregiver. We offer all of those things to our caregivers, as well.
Again, it’s that whole thing, like a narrative on the airplane, you’ve got to put your oxygen mask on, first, caregiver, and then put the oxygen mask on your loved one. That is not how we are programmed. We’re programmed to immediately put ourselves on hold and take care of others. I’m the same way, and it’s all because we love each other. We try to help their caregivers understand that, that have to take care of you, too.
There’s amazing things that happen, along the way, between the caregiver and the patient, the survivor. We can help. We can help make that relationship more helpful. Some of the barriers that sometimes exist, like where we started this conversation, what does the caregiver do, there can be tension around that. Working through that and finding that rhythm can just bring great comfort to both people.
Misty: I love that, so much. When you and I had talked, I had talked a lot about my mom and being a caregiver for her, how much that would have been welcomed for people like my dad, my aunts and myself; just giving that little reprieve, to fill our cups up, to be able to help her more. I think that that’s so important.
I was talking, with someone else, that caregivers are so overlooked, or it’s a group of people who don’t necessarily get a whole lot of attention because the attention is all on helping the person with the cancer. I think that’s so amazing and that’s awesome, that you guys do all those things and offer all those services. It’s definitely something that people can definitely look into.
How would they get a hold of you or the center? What’s the best way to do that, if they wanted to check more things out?
Sue: Yeah, well, our website is cancersupportcenter.org. It’s a pretty easy one, cancersuppportcenter.org. You go there, and it has all of our phone numbers. Anyone can always ask for me. Also, on the web, on our website, the home page, on the bottom, you can send a message to us. That’s a good way to say, “Hey, I heard Sue on the podcast, and I’d really like to learn more.” We can send welcome packets out.
I think it’s very courageous, when people decide to come to the center, because when you come here, it’s because you’re hoping for something better. You want to improve where you are, and when you do that, you have to admit that you’re struggling a little bit. A lot of times, I don’t like to do that; right? We like to just plow through that part of “I feel bad about this or that,” so everybody who comes in here, we immediately welcome.
You’ve been here. It’s a very night nurturing space. It’s not like a hospital, and you’ll immediately find something. We have over 150 programs a week, everything from knit and crochet, to individual therapy, and everything in the middle. Maybe you’re not ready to do therapy, but you just want to hang out with people who are in the same spot as you. Maybe you want to go to the knitting class, or maybe you want to go to the cooking demo. At the center, we have options, everything from social time to no intensive work and everything in the middle.
We know that it’s fluid, how we, as people, manage our emotions, fears and anxiety. It’s a fluid process, so we want to be there, along the way. We also have many people… It’s often a common thing for our participants, our survivors… They’ll come. It’ll be a year after. They’ve been cancer-free, and now, all of a sudden, they’re falling apart and like, “Why am I falling apart? I’ve made it through, so now I’m going to fall apart?” Well, of course, because you couldn’t. Your mind couldn’t handle the emotion, the fear and the worry, so it shut it off, locked it up. Now that you’re not living in that physical moment of fear and treatment, your brain can process, so don’t be surprised. Again, it happens, and it happens for caregivers, too. Work years, push through, done a great job, and now, all of a sudden, they’re struggling.
Last year, I can remember, it was in December, and a woman called here. She’s like, “My husband’s been cancer-free for five years. I’m trying to put the Christmas tree up, and I am just falling apart. It’s all coming out. I don’t know what is happening to me. I’m having a breakdown.” It’s like, “No, you’re just finally at a point in time where your brain feels like, your mind feels like it’s okay for you to work through this and let some of this go.” I don’t want people to think there’s something wrong with them if it’s a year later or five years later, ten years later, whenever, and that is coming out. Just come to us. Let us help you find your way to releasing that and letting it go, so it isn’t like a weight on you, anymore.
Misty: I love that, so much. What actually brings you the most inner peace? I know we talked about what you do there, at the center, helping bring the caregivers peace and the cancer survivors; the cancer, the people that are going through that. For you, what brings you the most inner peace?
Sue: I think, for me, it’s something I’ve learned over time, that serving other people is really what brings me the most amount of joy. I never quite realized that. For me, knowing, at the end of the day, there’s always a magical moment that happens at the center, for somebody, and being a part of that magic or witnessing that magic, it just makes me feel so grateful so grateful that I’m still here, grateful that I’ve chosen to be here, grateful that I’m not afraid to walk the walk with other people, still. I think, for me, it’s that sense of serving another person that brings me a lot of peace.
Misty: I love that, so much. As we’re wrapping things up, one question that I actually really love to ask everybody that comes on the podcast is, if you were able to have something being taught in schools, to the youth, that isn’t necessarily taught now… It doesn’t have to be in one specific area or another. What do you feel would be the most impactful for younger kids to learn?
Sue: I think that younger kids need to learn that each one of them is truly a beautiful person and that they just need to believe in their inner beauty and their inner ability, not listen to any of the other noise that goes on. It makes me sad to see the levels of anxiety that children have, or the levels of depression, and I think a lot of that comes from all of the negative messages that come to them all the time. I think, for a lot of our children, they don’t even see how precious they are. I know it sounds kind of sappy, but I just think each one of them is just this amazing potential of goodness. In life, we can’t let anything destroy that or crush that.
School is a big place where that can happen; right? If you’re not a super-smart kid, you feel bad about that, or if you’re not the prettiest kid, you feel bad about that. Or you don’t have the cool clothes’ you feel bad about that. I think that we need to be teaching our children to tend to their inner self, their inner person, first and foremost. I think we would see much happier children, if we did that.
Misty: Yeah, absolutely. It’s another thing that you were talking about. Maybe not necessarily even applying to the children, but I think that happens in the workplace, in different places, too, where it’s you’re trying to vie for someone else’s reward system. You end up overlooking all of your natural abilities and all your natural strengths, and working on your weaknesses and all these different things. I think that, just what you said, recognizing “Hey, you’re pretty awesome” is a pretty amazing thing.
Is there anything else, before we wrap up, that you would like to share, anything that we missed or anything that’s on your heart?
Sue: I’m just really grateful that you’re doing this because you are opening up a dialogue, a critically important dialogue that we need to have about taking care of each other and not living in fear, tending to the heart and spirit, all these things. I just want to thank you for just doing this for everybody else and sharing this message because I just think it’s really critical, so thank you.
Misty: Oh, my gosh. Thank you, so much, for agreeing. Again, it’s so courageous and so amazing to have somebody be so vulnerable, especially talking about things, cancers which we don’t necessarily talk about or parts we don’t necessarily talk about, and just being so open and laying it all out. It takes a great amount of bravery and vulnerability, and I appreciate you, so much. for spending your afternoon with me and giving me all kinds of fun stuff to share with everybody. I’m excited to do that, so again, if anybody wants to reach out to Sue or to the Cancer Support Center, I will put all of their info in the description. That way, you can take part in any of their classes.
If you’re a cancer survivor, cancer patient, caregiver, definitely utilize them. I’ve been in there. It’s an amazing space. The people are just so wonderful, and it was so welcoming. I’m excited to get to connect you guys with that space. If you are not in our area, definitely look into the place that’s actually closest to you because I’m sure there’s probably plenty of places. Is there a central website that someone could look at, if they’re not in the area?
Sue: Just a Google, I think they could do a Google search, but honestly, even if someone is not in those… We serve all the Chicago Southland area. We have a facility in Homewood and in Mokena. You just reach out to us, wherever you are, and we will direct you to where you need to go, if we can’t help you.
We get requests like that, all the time, so at the end of the day, our jobs are what brings us joy, and what our mission is is to make sure, like I said, no one is walking this journey alone. If we’re not in the right geographic space, we can help you get to where you need to go. Anyone comes to Mokena or Homewood, be sure to step in and say “Hi” to me. I’d love to just give people a hug and welcome them to the center.
Misty: You guys are so awesome. You’re so sweet, I love it so much. Thank you, so much, again, Sue. I appreciate you, and I hope I will be able to get to see you soon. Hope you guys are able to come and see Sue and the center, even just to say “Hi.” Hopefully, you don’t have to go there because you have cancer or you’re a caregiver. I would love to see a world where that’s not even a thing, anymore, but yeah, thank you, so much, again. I appreciate you, so much.
Sue: Thank you.
Misty: I appreciate you, so much. Thank you.
Sue: Alright. We’ll talk soon.
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