Passing it On: Life Does Return to Normal After Cancer

In her book, Passing it On, Susan G. Baker describes in the afterword how a routine check-up turned into a summer of suffering and soul-searching as she faced one of the greatest challenges of her life: ovarian cancer. I interviewed Susan as the wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III prepared to leave for the retreat of her Wyoming home, almost exactly two years to the date she learned she had cancer.

Susan Baker, A Cancer Survivor In The News on

Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, join friends Susan and James A. Baker III, at the 2010 dedication of a bronze statue of Mr. Baker which stands in the heart of downtown Houston. Susan Baker was highly-revered at home and abroad for her own civic service and diplomacy during husband’s appointments as Undersecretary of Commerce for President Gerald Ford, Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury for President Ronald Reagan, and Chief of Staff and Secretary of state for President Bush.

DML: In your book, you write that you really had no idea that anything was wrong.

SGB: It was my regular yearly well-woman appointment, which is one thing I encourage all women to have. There was no clue that I had this problem, despite the fact that my ovaries were the size of oranges. I was still hopeful and even when they did the surgery, they were hopeful that it wasn’t cancer because I didn’t have fluid in the cavity and the tell-tale signs of cancer that has progressed. But when they got the pathology back, it was low-grade ovarian cancer.

DML: How did you deal with it?

SGB: We were just leaving to go Wyoming. Jim was here for the surgery, of course, and when we found out the diagnosis, I just said “honey, please go.” I insisted that he go. I said, “I want time by myself to work through this.” I was just overwhelmed with emotions and it was hard to pray. I don’t know what people do without faith.

DML: What did you tell the rest of your family and friends?

SGB: I told them, “I am going on trust and I know His grace is sufficient no matter what.” I clung onto that with bloody fingernails. I said to them “I know I’m in the palm of God’s hand and I choose to trust.” I had volunteered for a long time for the Order of St. Luke, a healing ministry, and so I used that experience to help me.

DML: You’ve always tried to eat well and exercise and there’s no family history of cancer but then you get the diagnosis. What did you feel?
“I’ve been so healthy all my life and I worked hard at it, so I got mad, I really got upset. (She chuckles). But life is not about fair. With God’s grace, it’s been something positive. I have more empathy for people who feel bad because going through chemo, I felt horrible. You don’t sleep well. It interferes with everything in life. Chemo is a poison to the body. It does good work but it is hard on the body. I just got through it.

DML: How long did the chemo treatment affect you?

SGB: I got depressed going through the chemo. I’ve got so much more empathy for people with depression. I just hadn’t felt the depth. I didn’t know the hell it could be. After I finished my treatment, I felt a bit better after a week and after about 10 days, the depression kind of lifted. I got most of my energy back. The doctors told me not to expect to feel a lot better for six months and that’s when I really did begin to notice a difference.

DML: Along with prayer and rest, what else helped you?

SGB: I went to a Chinese doctor for acupressure and I know that that mitigated it but it was still awful. I also made myself walk every day. And people were so dear and encouraging with words, notes and bringing food. It was such a positive affirmation. The response was one of the things that helped me get through it.

DML: How has your life changed?

SGB: I’ve gotten a lot better about saying “no” and calling friends for lunch and focusing on what really matters, like relationships. My body had been telling me for three years that I needed more sleep and I ignored it. I know that contributed to my immune system not being as strong. I wouldn’t change it but my life is wild and woolly. It’s still filled with stresses but so many are good stresses, happy stresses, things you really want to do.

DML: What’s next?

SGB: Jim and I were supposed to go on a safari that fall and I told him to go ahead and go on the trip. I’m back to full strength and energy and we’re going on the safari trip that I missed. I’m excited and also scared because my husband loves hunting Cape buffalo and they’re big and scary.

DML: What would your advice be to others who have been diagnosed or are going through treatment?

SGB: It doesn’t seem like it, but in a year, you won’t be thinking about cancer all the time. Life does return to normal. It’s made me smarter about how to live life.

Category: Survivors in the News

Tags: acupressure, CancerForward Survivor in The News, depression, healing ministry, Order of St. Luke, ovarian cancer, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, surgery