Suzanne Samples: Your Story to Write
Suzanne Samples: Your Story to Write
Suzanne Samples is a writer and University Professor with a degree in Victorian Literature. Though she didn’t plan for it, once she began teaching writing courses to college freshman and sophomores, she fell in love with teaching those age groups and the class dynamic. Suzanne currently teaches Writing Across the Curriculum to sophomores.
At the time of this interview, she is living in West Virginia with her parents, where she moved at the beginning of the Pandemic.
Suzanne Samples, a university professor who teaches writing, was diagnosed with a Brain Tumor when she was 36. She has Type I Diabetes, so when she started having symptoms that could have been early indications of a Brain Tumor, she didn’t realize they might be related to something other than her Diabetes. She mentioned the symptoms to her doctor, but somewhat ignored them, assuming the neuropathy numbness in her foot was diabetes related, and she would discuss it further during her next doctor’s appointment.
A fit and very active person, Suzanne played roller derby, was at the gym regularly, and in great shape. She had no idea something was wrong until one day while she was having coffee with a friend. She thought she had a Charlie Horse in her leg, but it wouldn’t stop or go away. Her friend noticed the way Suzanne was holding her leg. It turns out Suzanne was having a seizure. Unaware what was happening at the time, Suzanne was trying to stop the cramping in her leg to no avail. The seizure continued to move up her leg into her right arm and shoulder. She then became completely paralyzed on her right side. It seemed to come out of nowhere. The symptoms she had been having, which she assumed were Diabetes related, needed to be addressed now.
Luckily for Suzanne, the friend she was having coffee with is an EMT (Emergency Medication Technician). The friend quickly recognized there was an issue, picked Suzanne up, correctly and safely, got her into the car and drove her directly to the ER. At this point, Suzanne thought she had a stroke, triggered by her diabetes. She was able to talk and remain completely awake and responsive during the whole episode. She still didn’t think it was a big deal, but her blood pressure was dangerously high and the ER doctors wanted to do a CT scan immediately.
Suzanne still wasn’t too concerned and agreed to the scan. The subsequent diagnosis was a large mass on her brain. She was in complete shock and could not believe what she was hearing. She was living in North Carolina at the time, in a rural area, so she was taken by ambulance to Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she underwent emergency surgery. This was just a few days before Christmas — not at all what she had planned. It all happened very fast and very suddenly.
Suzanne continued to think it wasn’t going to be a big deal and they were just going to remove the mass. She maintained a positive attitude. She didn’t think it was cancerous, and was sure it couldn’t be anything other than a benign Brain Tumor. Although she was still partially paralyzed, her doctors and medical team were pretty confident she would be able to regain all of her movement and mobility. Suzanne thought that after she woke up from surgery she would be fine and back to her normal self. However, that is NOT what happened at all. The Brain Tumor biopsy came back after a couple of weeks’ delay, due to the Christmas holiday. Suzanne was diagnosed with a Gioblastoma, a term she had never heard before. She had no concept of what that was or what it meant. Hearing the doctor say the word “unfortunately”, her world disappeared and everything changed.
Fortunately for Suzanne, her medical team was very optimistic. They pushed her to keep going forward. She worked hard on her physical therapy, as well as her speech and her occupational therapy. Her speech was fine, though she did have some memory issues. This was tough on Suzanne because prior to this experience, she had an exceptional memory. She never needed to keep a calendar; it was all in her head. Her right hand became usable again fairly quickly, but during the healing process she had become left-handed. Her right leg took longer to heal and regain its full range of motion and capability, and her right foot is still somewhat paralyzed.
In the 3 years that have passed since her surgery, she is walking and exercising, often hiking up to 6 miles a day. She has pushed through a lot of the shock and scariness of it all. Suzanne did undergo Chemo and Radiation and considers herself “super lucky” to not have any recurrence in the 3 years, which is really good news.
Suzanne’s specific diagnosis of “non-methalated, wild type” doesn’t necessarily respond well to chemotherapy, but she feels so grateful that hers did! The mass was found in her left frontal lobe. She completed all the treatments and is working on getting back to her active lifestyle, doing as much as she can.
“2 days after surgery, I was sitting in my bed, and even though I was in shock and had no idea what was going on, I said to myself, ‘I can just sit here and think about it, or I can actually do something’.
I’m a writer, so I started writing. I couldn’t use my hand yet, but smart phones are great and allowed me to start dictating some notes on my phone. I thought, ‘This is the craziest thing that has ever happened to me and I need to write about this!’”
A friend brought Suzanne a laptop and soon she was able to type and started writing her memoir, which was well-received “Though it’s not a best seller or anything, it got some critical acclaim, which is ironically something that I had always wanted. And yet, I felt like I kinda had to sell my soul a little bit to get that, but I also felt that my life gave me the material I needed to write about. So I tried to look at it that way — I became my own inspiration to write about.”
“I just really picked myself up and said, ‘You are not going to just sit in this bed and do nothing. I can either sit here and cry about it or DO SOMETHING and make the best of what I have.’”
“I will also say, I am not against positive thinking, but I allowed myself to feel all the things I felt. If I felt sad or angry, I allowed myself to feel those things. Then I would say, ‘Ok, you felt those things, now it’s time to move forward.’ Continuing to move forward literally and figuratively is what has gotten me through this, one step at a time. In the beginning, I couldn’t walk, but putting one foot in front of the other has gotten me where I am today.”
“At first I thought I would never be able to walk again, but my physical therapist was really inspiring and said, ‘You have to keep going, I really think you are going to be able to walk again, but you have to keep trying.’ If I felt sad, I let myself feel that. I didn’t feel that I had to stay positive all the time. So that was really important to me, to feel all those things, but at the end of the day, to keep moving forward.”
Although her leg still bothers her on occasion, “t feels like a dead object on my body at times”, Suzanne is used to it. She also still has focal seizures so she is always awake and knows what is happening. When they start, she stops whatever she’s doing and waits until they have passed. She falls sometimes too, but the stronger she gets, the less she falls, and she is falling much less frequently now. Sometimes her memory isn’t as sharp as it was, so she has to work harder to remember things. Suzanne now needs to use a calendar, writes everything down, and uses the tools available to her.
It’s also been tough, with some friends who have drifted away. Friends don’t know what to say, or how to deal with what’s going on. As hard as that is though, Suzanne said, “It is really nice to know people like Isabel and have a good support group.” The support from people who know what Suzanne is going through has been very helpful. She found Isabel and Heart of The Brain on Instagram when she “liked” one of Isabel’s posts about Brain Cancer. She had been trying to find a support group over the last few years, that met her needs, with people who were going through something similar, and met during times that worked for her. Connecting with Isabel on Instagram and joining her Survivor Support group has provided just that.
Suzanne is back to work, teaching online, after having only taken one semester off. Initially, when she went back into the classroom, it was difficult to stand all day. Her bosses and supervisors, were caring, understanding and supportive, and willing to let her try teaching online. Then, during the next semester, the Pandemic made everyone else transition to online teaching too.
Suzanne’s advice to anyone else going through brain cancer treatment and recovery:
“It is definitely terrifying and scary, and it’s ok to feel those feelings and have that fear and feel scared, but it’s also important to find people who have also been through this and can support you. Know that you will hear these numbers, or people will talk about’11-13 months survival time for a Glioablastoma’. Here I am, 3 years later, and I know people who have celebrated 15 or 20 years. It’s incredible — the amount of time people can survive these things. I am the type to research everything. The statistics show these tumors are bad, but then you start to meet people who have gotten through the worst of it, and you realize it can be done, you can get through this. It’s important to stay positive and also have people meet you where you are, help you out, and be real with yourself. Do what you can, do at least one thing every day, and every day you will get better. Not every day will be great. There were some really, really, really awful days, but I’m in a better place now, by just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Today Suzanne says she is “Doing great and feeling good!”