Susan Murphy's Story

Stylist Cuts Breast Cancer Out of her Life

No Insurance

As a hairstylist and owner of Hair FX Studio in Cape Coral, 45-year-old Susan Murphy does not have health insurance. So when she felt a lump in her breast in May 2010, she paid out-of-pocket for a mammogram and ultrasound that confirmed her fear—breast cancer.

"Susan was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer," explains Frank Rodriguez, M.D., oncologist/hematologist, who oversaw Susan's treatment.

Susan admits that she considered ignoring the diagnosis. "I had no insurance," she says. "I didn't know how I would afford the treatment."

Dr. Rodriguez told Susan to call Lee Memorial Health System's Regional Cancer Center. Just one day after receiving the cancer diagnosis, she was introduced to Dara Leichter, RN, breast cancer nurse navigator. Dara helped Susan apply for a grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Southwest Florida Affiliate. The following day, she was approved for a grant that helped cover the cost of surgery and both chemotherapy drugs.

Knowing the expenses would be covered, Susan focused on the treatment itself. "When I walked into the Regional Cancer Center the first time and saw my treatment schedule, I lost it," she says. "It seemed like I had to be there almost every day, and I felt like cancer was taking over my life. When Dara explained the schedule, I realized it was more manageable than it seemed on paper."

Losing Her Hair

Susan underwent 18 weeks of aggressive chemo and eight weeks of radiation treatment, followed by low-dose maintenance chemo to complete a year of therapy. She knew the chemo could cause her hair to fall out, but she was not emotionally prepared for it.

"We were away for my daughter Shaina's 11th birthday when it started falling out in clumps," Susan says. "Hair has been my passion since I was her age, so it was very emotional for both of us when she came in and helped me cut all of it off—which she was very proud to do."

The Regional Cancer Center donated a wig, as it does for all breast cancer patients receiving care there, but Susan's clients purchased eight additional wigs in different styles and colors from Cookie's Place—the Regional Cancer Center boutique that sells wigs, scarves, prosthetics and gifts, and allows visitors to borrow books on health-related topics.

"I figured if I'm going to lose my hair, I might as well have fun with different hairstyles," Susan says.

Caregivers Become Family

Susan's relatives live in Georgia, so her support system consisted of her 20-year-old son, Joseph; daughter, Shaina; brother, Eric; her salon employees and clients; and Regional Cancer Center staff.

"Dara was always there for me, both physically and emotionally," Susan says. "And the rest of the staff—especially Sandy Avenengo, certified nursing assistant—and atmosphere at the Regional Cancer Center certainly helped me 'feel' better, even on the hardest days. I spent a lot of time in the meditation room or having lunch with my brother or best friend at the café."

For the next six months, Susan will continue to take Herceptin, which specifically targets and kills HER2 cancer cells and decreases the risk of recurrence, and the estrogen blocker Nolvadex for five years. "Breast cancer cells feed off of estrogen, so if we limit the amount of estrogen in a woman's body, the chances of relapse are greatly reduced," Dr. Rodriguez explains. Susan also maintains a healthy diet—eating more vegetables, avoiding sugar and taking vitamins.

Susan continues to run her hair salon, and has found comfort in helping clients and employees who have received breast cancer diagnoses as well. Hair FX Studio, located at 3812 Skyline Boulevard in Cape Coral, offers free buzz cuts, mini facials and express manicures to men and women undergoing cancer treatment.