by Cori Hilsgen
All Saints Academy teacher Susan Huls is keeping her faith as she battles Stage II breast cancer.
While chatting at lunch with her co-workers last Oct. 2, Huls felt a sudden semi-sharp pain under her left arm and also found some lumps. The next morning the pain was no longer bothering her, so she ignored it.
A short time later, she mentioned it to her husband, Jerry, who insisted she have it checked out by her doctor.
“The doctor showed immediate concern, but we were both puzzled because my June mammogram had been clear,” Huls said. “I had an ultrasound on Oct. 12 and a biopsy on Oct. 15 and I was called on Thursday, Oct. 18, with (the) news it was cancer.”
Huls told her children Alex, 24, just graduated from college; Sean, 21, a junior in college; Laura, 15, a freshman at Royalton High School; and Carson, 12, in seventh-grade in Royalton, as soon as she got the news. Then she told her co-workers. She did not share the diagnosis with anyone else until she knew more.
Huls met with her surgeon the following Tuesday and her oncologist on Wednesday. A PET scan indicated the cancerous cells didn’t appear to be located anywhere else. Another test, HER2 neu-gene, showed the cancer seemed to be a less aggressive type.
Because of her strong Catholic faith, Huls contacted her parish priest the Friday after she learned her diagnosis. The Rev. Gregory Mastey anointed her and prayed with her after the weekend Mass.
“Some definite comfort and the beginning of some peace of mind,” Huls said. “I decided not to keep this ‘bump in the road’ a secret from anyone – one of my wisest decisions – and at that time notified my school community and distant family.”
On Oct. 25, the Rev. Jerome Tupa enlisted her class and the congregation to bless her in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, before her PET scan and surgery.
“I immediately began benefiting from the prayers of my friends, family, colleagues and students,” Huls said.
Huls has been overwhelmed with the kindness, good wishes and, most importantly, promises of prayers from many.
“You know, there is usually a silver lining with dark clouds,” she said. “My family, my school community, my church community – so many people expressing their love and concern really makes me feel so humbly grateful.”
Surgeons scheduled a lumpectomy surgery to remove the tumor and an axilla dissection to remove the lymph nodes under Huls’ left arm. Another ultrasound revealed another smaller lump in her breast, so Huls and her medical team decided to remove the entire breast – a mastectomy.
Tissue biopsies revealed cancerous cells in the two lymph nodes and both breast lumps. The veins feeding the tumors did not have any cancer cells. The surgeon felt Huls was on the better side of the staging spectrum at Stage II, with no cancer cells showing up any place else and only two out of 20 lymph nodes involved.
“I recovered remarkably fast after surgery,” Huls said. “It was Friday, I was home on Saturday, rested Sunday and Monday and was back in school on Tuesday.”
After she had healed, Huls started chemotherapy in December.
“I had to go to ‘chemo class’ to learn about how things were done and how to take care of myself afterward,” Huls said. “It was not a class I care to repeat – pretty discomfiting to hear what those powerful chemicals can do to your body.”
She took her first treatment day, Dec. 5, off from teaching. She expected to feel ill, but said she had no side effects except being slightly tired.
“I was already experiencing the power and positive energy of prayers offered on my behalf,” she said.
Huls repeated six cycles of chemotherapy once every three weeks and finished those on March 21. She was able to schedule her treatments on Thursday afternoons, when her classroom schedule was “lighter.” Any “down” time came on Saturdays, so she had a chance to rest.
Huls only needed to take one of the three anti-nausea medications that were prescribed to her. She would take it the day before, of and after treatment. She recently finished radiation treatments which were scheduled every 33 days, not including weekends.
Her diagnosis of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma is the most common form of breast cancer and a lot is known about it, she said, so doctors usually follow a series of treatments to fight it – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The original October 2012 PET scan also revealed a lump in Huls’ thyroid. A needle biopsy was inconclusive and cannot determine if it’s cancerous. When she has healed from the radiation, a surgery will be scheduled to remove and test it.
“We will see then if my new, very short hair will be able to continue to grow – or if I’ll have to start this all over again,” Huls said.
Huls said her students and parents have been amazing. Various ways they have shown their support include a large portion of the student body and alumni wore pink in support of women who are facing breast cancer and put a big sign on her classroom door which read “Fight Like A Girl!”
She said an anonymous person placed beautiful pink ribbons on each of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade lockers in the downstairs gathering place at ASA.
On her way home the Saturday after her November surgery, Huls discovered a mini garment factory set up in the ASA lunchroom. Several school parents and students and former students were making “Hats for Mrs. Huls,” along with inspirational bookmarks, which they sold and presented her with a large check right before Christmas vacation.
Teachers and families at ASA provided Huls and her family with a gift of prepared meals from “My Dinner Connection” in Cold Spring.
Huls said her family has been great through all of this. She and her husband decided to keep things as normal as possible, which meant for her to keep working and to keep herself busy.
Huls said this also kept her from drifting into a dark state of mind.
“You have to be ‘with it’ to keep 23 lively sixth-graders on track,” Huls said. “I really enjoyed my year with those kids because after the first bit of trauma of diagnosis, surgery and start of chemo, my class and I – and the staff – just got back to the business of teaching and learning, the best parts of life.”
She and the class got through the year together without it all being about her cancer, although, the support was always present and felt. Huls’ son, Carson, was part of her class during the past challenging year.
“That’s the thing about this school community,” Huls said. “The support of the principal, teachers and parents has always been there – it was manifested for me in wonderful and dramatic ways these past months, but it has always been there.”
Huls is 54.
“I am always glad to share my age because I am glad to have the chance to keep adding years,” said Huls, who lives west of Opole on land that was once her husband’s family farm. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa and her master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas. She has been teaching since 1981 and has taught at ASA in St. Joseph for 22 years.
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.