You can’t talk to breast cancer survivor Sulie Spencer without being reminded of our belief that no one should face breast cancer alone. Woven throughout Sulie’s inspiring story is a prevailing theme of persevering through the power of community and friendship.
Diagnosed for the first time in 1976, Sulie recently celebrated her 40th “cancer-versary”, having also survived a second breast cancer diagnosis in 2002, as well as lymphoma and mesothelioma earlier this year. Sulie, who has been a housekeeper for the same family for 53 years, was diagnosed within months of the family’s matriarch, the late Mrs. Anna Biegelsen. This shared experience strengthened their relationship from employer/employee to the point that Mrs. Biegelsen, who only had sons, later told Sulie, “You’ve been better than a daughter to me.”
Through the years, Sulie cared for the Biegelsen grandchildren—who are now in their late 50s—and great-grandchildren, and the Biegelsens always made sure Sulie was taken care of too. When Mrs. Biegelsen and Sulie had mastectomies and both needed prosthetic bras costing $45 each—a big expense in 1976— Mrs. Biegelsen purchased extras for Sulie. The bras were made for Caucasian women, but Sulie, an African-American, says she was too grateful to be alive to be bothered by that.
Still, Sulie’s experience made her realize that young African-American women in her community needed more resources when facing breast cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, she didn’t know where to turn. She had heard of older women having breast cancer, but, at just 38, she felt very alone, recalling, “It was the 1970s, and people didn’t say ‘breast’ or ‘cancer’.” She decided she would go out of her way to talk about her diagnosis so women in her community would know they could turn to her. As a mentor in her church’s breast cancer support group, she has comforted women during the shocking moment when they are first diagnosed.
Sulie, the 11th of 15 children in her family—and the oldest surviving sibling—has seen the world change dramatically during her 78 years. Sulie’s original mastectomy was done by the same general surgeon who removed her appendix. Today, many patients—including Sulie’s oldest daughter, Jennifer, a three-year breast cancer survivor—have access to specialists for surgery, oncology, radiation, genetic testing and even patient
navigators who help them throughout their journeys. Early detection screening services have also improved through the years. Sulie’s youngest daughter, Julie, is pursuing a proactive approach to screenings because of her mother’s and sister’s breast cancer diagnoses. Julie’s doctor has prescribed alternating annual breast MRIs and mammograms so that her breasts are screened every six months. She is thankful she and her husband have been able to make these expensive screenings a priority, but knows not everyone can afford them. This is why we are so passionate about providing early detection screenings to women in need.
Sulie is a beautiful example of our passion for Helping Women Now, and we congratulate her on using her three cancer diagnoses as fuel for providing hope and help to others.
Sulie (center) with daughters Julie (left), a passionate advocate for early detection, and Jennifer (right), a breast cancer survivor.