Susan Webster was treated for breast cancer at cCARE a decade ago. Now, she’s a cancer fitness expert.
Susan Webster is a fit, thriving sports medicine enthusiast who founded Pacific Cancer Fitness, a nonprofit cancer patient support program, in 2013. What may not be readily apparent to her fitness students is that Susan is herself a breast cancer survivor. Her difficult journey with cancer fuels her passion and drive today.
When Susan moved to California with her family in 2006, she planned on becoming a schoolteacher so she could spend her afternoons and evenings at home with her teenage kids. A former Washington, D.C., resident, Susan had recently had a mass removed from one of her breasts and was taking rounds of tamoxifen as prescribed by her D.C. oncologist. Tamoxifen is often used as a preventive treatment measure for women identified as being at risk for developing breast cancer.
“In D.C. I was told I did not have cancer and did not need to worry about a mammogram at that point,” says Susan. “But I did need to find another oncologist when I moved to California so that I could refill my prescription.”
Susan made an appointment with Dr. Laurie Frakes at cCARE for what she thought would be a quick, routine appointment. After fully assessing the situation, Dr. Frakes decided to do a thorough screening and check-up.
“Dr. Frakes said, ‘Let’s start at square one with a mammogram,’” recalls Susan. After the examination and a biopsy, Susan received heart-wrenching news: she had cancer in her right breast, and would need to undergo treatment right away.
“Dr. Frakes literally saved my life,” says Susan. “If she hadn’t suggested the mammogram, it would have progressed to a much later stage before it was discovered.”
Breast cancer patients don’t all get the cCARE-level of care
Susan had two lumpectomies (a procedure in which cancerous tissue is removed from the breast), without clear margins. A lumpectomy without clear margins means that the doctors could not be sure that the procedure successfully removed all of the cancer. Susan had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment to ensure all of the cancer was eliminated.
“That was a really difficult year of my life,” recalls Susan. “Cancer is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but I am so glad Dr. Frakes was my doctor. At cCARE, I always felt like I had their full attention. They are so competent, and they will go the extra mile for you. I see now after working with other cancer patients that not everyone out there gets the same level of care that I received.”
While undergoing treatment, Susan learned the importance of maintaining an open line of communication with her doctors, and she asked lots of questions along the way. “The cCARE staff always answered my questions, and if they didn’t know the answer, they immediately sought it out,” she says.
She also discovered the therapeutic benefit of acupuncture and exercise during and immediately following cancer treatment – discoveries that planted the seeds for what would ultimately grow into a career as a cancer fitness coach.
Seeking a healthy lifestyle after cancer
Once she was cancer free, Susan was overweight and was told that the excess weight put her at higher risk for cancer recurrence and lymphedema, a condition common to former cancer patients in which swelling occurs in the limbs. She found herself fervently seeking out information on how to lead a healthy lifestyle post-cancer.
She visited a number of cancer survivor support groups and encountered many people who had some of the same questions she did about fitness and wellness. “I found this huge group of people who were going through the same thing that I was,” she recalls.
What Susan had identified was a real need for support, reputable information and community for cancer patients seeking to care for their bodies during and after treatment. She found a huge gap between prevention and cure, filled with many survivors trying to find their way. Ultimately, her journey inspired her to pursue a Cancer Exercise Trainer certification from the American College of Sports Medicine.
She lost 60 pounds, and was soon armed with fresh know-how and a passion to teach cancer patients and survivors about how to take better care of themselves. It was then that she founded Pacific Cancer Fitness (PCF) at the state-of-the-art Tri-City Wellness Center in Carlsbad, CA.
A fitness center for cancer patients and survivors
“Cancer fitness sounds like an oxymoron,” Susan says with a chuckle, “and patients usually don’t feel like exercising when they first come into our facility. But after the workout, they almost always report feeling much better.”
In addition to fitness classes (most of which are led by Susan), PCF coordinates a robust schedule of guest speakers who cover topics related to cancer treatment and healthy lifestyle choices. “I wanted to find a way to make something positive from my experience with cancer, and make the journey less scary for others,” says Susan. “Cancer sucks. But the good thing is that through cancer, I met all of these people that I would not have otherwise met.”
When talking with Susan, it’s hard not to be uplifted by her joy, optimism and enthusiasm for life. “Every day is a gift,” she says with sincerity. “You have to find those things to be grateful for.”