Her decision: for each day to be good
BY AMBER SMITH
Sue Crawson-Brizzolara cried until she was a puddle on the ﬂoor. The Methodist pastor had lung cancer, which had spread to her brain. Her survival odds were not good. She might have two years. Most people with her cancer died within months. She broke down, sobbing.
Cancer entered her life as she was busy with the last semester of her master’s program in 2015. Crawson- Brizzolara was tired, maybe more than usual. One night as she ate rotisserie chicken, she choked on a bone. Later, when she coughed up blood, she assumed it was related to the chicken bone. When she coughed up blood again, her husband, Dan, insisted she see her nurse practitioner.
“It was a week before graduation, and I felt like the rug was pulled right out from under me,” Crawson- Brizzolara remembers.
She had an aggressive lung cancer and needed specialized cancer care.
Finding her team
She came to the Upstate Cancer Center -- and found a team of health care providers.
“The ﬁrst thing they said to me when I went for the evaluation was that ‘We have a team, and you’re part of that team.’ They listen to me as the patient, and I’m responsible for my care, too,” Crawson-Brizzolara says.
She loves how her doctors communicate. When she sees radiation oncologist Seung Shin Hahn, MD, and nurse practitioner Kathryn Spinek, they are aware of what her other providers from the cancer center are doing for treatment and the concerns she’s discussed with her nutritionist. And, they inform her primary medical provider -- nurse practitioner Julie Barnes of Windsor, a few miles from Crawson-Brizzolara’s home in Harpursville, northeast of Binghamton.
Because lung cancer often spreads to the brain, at her ﬁrst appointment, medical oncologist Adham Jurdi, MD, sent Crawson-Brizzolara for a brain scan, which showed a tumor. She then underwent gamma knife radiation to remove it, under the supervision of Walter Hall, MD. Then she had chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments to treat the lung cancer, a non-small-cell squamous cell carcinoma.
When she told her family, each member was supportive in his or her own way. Her husband cared for her daily and kept the household going. Her mother nurtured her. Daughters Traci and Becky called, texted and sent cards weekly. Her son, Brian provided motivational messages and videos twice a week without fail. They all knew that only 17 percent of the people with her diagnosis would live another ﬁve years. “Mom, somebody has to be in that 17 percent,” her son told her, “and it may as well be you.”
That, plus words of encouragement from her health care team, helped pull Crawson-Brizzolara off the ﬂoor.
She remembers being stunned when Jurdi told her the cancer could return anywhere in her body, at any time. “We will treat your cancer as aggressively as we can,” he said. “But Sue, go live your life. Live your days and enjoy them, because you don’t know whether it’s coming back.’ ”
It helped her realize that, cancer or no cancer, no one knows how long they will live.
“If you only have whatever number of days, even if it’s 700-something, how do you want to live those days? You can lay here every day and cry. That’s your choice,” she says. “I asked myself, how do I want those days to play out? I decided I wanted to leave behind good memories. And if I’ve only got 60 days or 760 days, I wanted each day to be good.”
A wellness plan
Crawson-Brizzolara created a wellness plan that said she would get up and take a shower and make her bed every day – even if she was just going to climb back in bed afterward – and to “put some goodness into the air” every day. Some days when she was feeling ill from chemo, her goodness was prayers for other people.
Her trips to Syracuse from Harpursville took about 90 minutes. Crawson-Brizzolara says her family was impressed not only with her doctors but with nurses, technicians and janitors. “Everybody up there goes the extra mile.” One early morning as her husband sat in the waiting room, a worker from environmental services approached: “You look tired,” he said. “Can I get you a pillow and warm blanket?” Another time, a nurse walked her husband and her mother down a maze of hallways to the hospital cafeteria – and gave them a phone number to call when they were ready to be escorted back to the cancer center.
Crawson-Brizzolara’s lung cancer treatment concluded in September 2015. Since then, every three months, she returns for checkups. Crawson-Brizzolara says many family members had cancer, so she knows she is at high risk herself. She’s full of praise for her caregivers at Upstate. “I know I could die. And if I do, I’m not going to blame them. I’m going to thank them for these extra years of life.”
In 2018, she felt a lump in her throat. It turned out to be a second cancer, this one in one of her tonsils. Surgery was not an option, so she faced chemotherapy and radiation, again.
At one of her appointments at the Upstate Cancer Center, she mentioned to nurse practitioner Ibrahim Thabet that the next day was the anniversary of the end of her lung cancer treatments.
Becoming a survivor
“That’s how survivors talk. They talk about milestones and reaching them,” Thabet told her. “You’re talking like a survivor.”
Crawson-Brizzolara became a survivor. She credits that to the medical care she receives from Barnes and the specialists at the cancer center, along with encouragement and love from family and friends, and spiritual and prayer support from many others.
Two years later, in 2021, she felt something in her neck again. The cancer from her tonsil had returned, to a lymph node in her throat. Otolaryngologist Mark Marzouk, MD, who specializes in head and neck cancers, made plans to surgically remove the lymph node.
“The cancer had broken out of the lymph node with tentacles,” Crawson-Brizzolara explains. “One wrapped around the nerve going to the tongue, and the other around my jugular vein. They had to cut both of them to get the cancer out.”
The surgery altered her voice.
During her hospital stay, caregivers pointed out that since treatment concluded more than six years prior, she was considered cured of lung cancer. She reminded Hahn, the radiation oncologist, that in 2015 only 17 percent of people with her type of lung cancer would survive ﬁve years.
He explained that survival rates had improved. Now 50 percent of people survive ﬁve years.
Thanks to ﬁnancial donations that allow doctors to conduct research, Crawson-Brizzolara says proudly that “progress is being made.”