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Oxford couple defeats double dose of cancer

By Carleigh Turner, Web Designer

Antique wicker chairs border the walls of her screened-in porch, pictures of her children and grandchildren are proudly placed between pastel bouquets and the walls of her house mimic the playful Lilly Pulitzer dresses that fill her closet.

Suzanne Siegel, 69, and an employee at the Oxford Antique Shop, is setting up for her neighborhood's annual block party.

She smiles as she makes nametags for all attending, and gathers up her napkins and plasticware into one of her precious wicker baskets. However, when she goes to bring a table up from the basement, she cannot do it alone.

After a year of chemotherapy, Suzanne's hips have yet to regain normal function, adding a slight waddle to her step.

Suzanne was a cheerleading sponsor at Miami for 20 years. She accompanied her cheerleaders to all functions, handled disciplinary issues, oversaw tryouts, provided financial support and was in charge of the team's transportation.

Before cancer, Suzanne said she could kick as high as any of her cheerleaders. Now, she is content just to have the ability to walk.

She was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 1998 when she was 52 years old, after having battled pancreatitis, peritonitis - an inflammation of the tissue that lines the inner wall of the abdomen - and typhoid fever earlier in life.

"What amazed me about breast cancer is that I never thought I was going to die," Suzanne said. "I just looked at my bridge club and I looked at my birthday bunch and thought, 'OK, one out of eight, I've got it, so they're okay.'"

Suzanne's comfort stemmed from the statistic that approximately one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

For treatment, Suzanne underwent a single mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery before starting chemotherapy at the Barrett Breast Clinic in Cincinnati.

The chemo Suzanne was prescribed contained steroids that drastically altered her appearance.

"I was in a chamber meeting with Gil and they had chicken on a stick, I probably ate 40 of them," Suzanne said. "[A chamber member] told me to stop because I was going to get sick and I said, 'I would rather be sick.'"

After her diagnosis, Suzanne fought hard to keep teaching her kindergarten class at Kramer Elementary School, but the negative effects of her cancer treatment had become unbearable.

"[People] kept telling me that I needed to quit and I would tell them, 'You think I'm a woosie? You think I can't lick this?' Then I just couldn't do it anymore," she said.

Approximately a year later, Suzanne underwent a routine biopsy. She and her husband returned to the hospital a week later to discover she was now in remission.

Suzanne was only gone for four months before coming back to teaching. It had only taken her one year to beat cancer. She retired from teaching in 2006 almost a decade after her diagnosis.

Although most checkups have been positive, it was difficult, in the beginning, for her to cope with the intense anxiety of not knowing whether the cancer had returned.

"Gilbert went to the bathroom and said, 'You're trembling,' and I started to cry. For years, I'd get on Taft Road and the tears would just stream down my face," Suzanne said.

However, Suzanne said the hardest part about battling cancer was being on the other side and watching those around her battle their own illnesses.

A year after Suzanne entered remission, her husband, Gilbert, 76, was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer.

"I was lucky. My kids were my support system when I had cancer," Suzanne said. "Until Gil got it, I didn't realize how horrible it was for them. It's so hard to see someone you love suffer."

Suzanne and her husband both experienced hair loss.

"When [Gilbert] turned his head hair would fly off," Suzanne said. "I looked outside and saw the birds had put it in their nests. I knew because Gil had beautiful hair."

Gilbert and Suzanne have been married for 46 years and are both in remission.