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Local woman recounts her breast cancer journey

EAST MIDDLEBURY’S SUSAN Shashok is doing well in her recovery from a major breast cancer operation, thanks to friends, family, healthcare practitioners and a line of skincare products — two of which she shows here — she began developing more than two decades ago. Independent photo/John S. McCright

“For me, it was like being in the worst game show ever. Doors number one, two and three — all the choices stink. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of scariness.”
— Susan Shashok

EAST MIDDLEBURY — A decade ago Susan Shashok expanded her Caroline’s Dream skincare business to include body creams, salves and lip balms specifically aimed at folks battling cancer.

She never imagined at the time that she, herself might benefit from the new products she was manufacturing.

But the former Middlebury selectboard member and current town moderator now finds herself recovering from a major breast cancer operation, and she’s leaning on her own experience as a natural skincare products manufacturer — along with tremendous support from the community — as she navigates her road to recovery.

Through a routine mammogram last summer Shashok first learned things were amiss.

“I had put off (the mammogram) during the pandemic, like lots of women,” she said.

Porter Medical Center professionals reviewed her initial mammogram and brought her in for a second. Physicians flagged a suspicious mass, and had Shashok return for a biopsy.

“They had the ultrasound going while they were doing the biopsy and I looked over and thought, ‘That looks like a classic tumor,’” she recalled.

Medical analysis of the biopsy, completed last August, confirmed her fears.

“That was the hardest wait,” Shashok said of the results. “But I was preparing myself, because I knew what (the mass) looked like.”

She didn’t have much time to process the sobering information. Her physicians urged her to have surgery quickly.

Shashok would have only four weeks to determine how invasive she wanted the surgery to be. Just four weeks to complete her heaviest work assignments, knowing her energy would be sapped during her long convalescence. Only four weeks to indulge in her favorite pastime — biking.

“(The time) goes really fast,” she said.

Shashok had originally decided to have a lumpectomy with breast reconstruction.

But just two days before surgery, she changed her mind, electing instead to have a double mastectomy.

“For me, it was like being in the worst game show ever,” she recalled. “Doors number one, two and three — all the choices stink. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of scariness. You think, ‘I want to live at the end of this,’ but you don’t really know. So, for me, I changed my mind at the last minute because going for the double-mastectomy lessened my chances of having to have (chemo) radiation afterwards.”

She had heard that radiation treatment for breast cancer patients is tough on the upper body.

“I want to ride my bike; that’s what gives me joy,” Shashok said. “So I made decisions based on hopefully being able to do that again.”

Shashok praised her medical team for helping inform her extremely important health decision.

“You still need to decide (for yourself); everyone is looking at you,” she said. “But you don’t really know how it’s going to go until you get beyond door one, two or three.”

Seven months clear of her operation, Shashok believes she made the right choice. She’s been able to sidestep radiation and is gradually returning to biking. A few cancer cells continue to roam her body, but she’s taking a medication to keep them in check.

OPTIMISM & BOUNDLESS ENERGY

Unfortunately, the medicine has some side effects — one of which is fatigue.

Anyone who knows Susan Shashok has marveled at her optimism and boundless energy. The optimism remains fully intact, but the energy has declined from a rolling boil to a simmer.

“I’m tired, but I’m not exhausted. I don’t have joint and muscle pain,” she smiled, looking at the glass as half full. “Naps are a ‘thing’ now; I was never a good napper. I’m careful; I can’t do a lot of the things I used to do.”

But she’s returned to Caroline’s Dream, a home-based business born more than two decades ago after Shashok began using her own knowledge of herbs, agricultural science and entrepreneurship to formulate skincare products to soothe her own sensitive skin. Others appreciated her creations, to the extent that Caroline’s Dream blossomed into a small enterprise (carolinesdream.com).

Now, once again, Shashok is finding comfort in her own products — and hopes others recovering from cancer procedures can benefit. She has salves, creams and lip balms containing calendula, a flower native to Asia and southern Europe. Calendula flower is commonly used for inflammation, dry skin, abrasions, wounds, eczema, psoriasis              and burns.

“This herb is deeply healing to skin and has antiseptic, antibacterial and astringent properties that work well alongside (not to replace) conventional cancer treatments,” Shashok notes on her website.

Shashok has been steadily adding cancer patients to her client list, thanks to referrals from nurses and Google.

Now she’s added her own name to the list — a bittersweet biproduct from her decades of looking for natural remedies to skin ailments. And “natural” is a particularly important quality for cancer patients — particularly those whose medical treatment includes big doses of radiation and chemicals, according to Shashok.

“Once you’re diagnosed (with cancer), and you have all this stuff coming at you, the last thing you want to do is put more chemicals on top of it … It really starts to feel defeating, after a while,” she said.

Calendula-based products can be of particular help to cancer patients facing skin ailments including scarring (from operation incisions), irritation around IV ports, chemo radiation burns, and dry lips, a side effect of some medications, according to Shashok.

“When I was healing, it was really nice to reach for my own things and not worry how I might react to someone else’s products,” she said.

Being a model patient has helped her recovery process. Shashok follows her physicians’ advice to the letter, from dietary regimens to exercise tips.

“When I went to physical therapy, they kicked me out after the second session because I had such good range of motion,” she said proudly. “I had been doing my lymphatic massages and healing everything properly.”

But Shashok is quick to give shout-outs to the many people who have accompanied her on her healthcare journey. They include her husband, Alan, friends, neighbors and, of course, medical professionals.

“My community has helped me so much,” she said, her face betraying heartfelt emotion. “I had so many people volunteer to take me to appointments. People came to walk our dog. One day, I had one person come over to just babysit me while I slept, so Alan could go back to work and not worry about me.

“It was amazing,” she added. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for people struggling with the same decisions who don’t have good health care, good health insurance, or a good support system.”

Shashok has moderated her Caroline’s Dream commitments to a point where she can keep up. And each future order from a cancer patient will resonate a little differently with her than it did just a year ago. She’s been sharing her story with customers on social media, inviting and answering any questions about her personal experience or products.

“Every cancer journey is different, but what I’m finding is we all share the same comfort in healing products along the way,” she said. “I love the fact that my products are helping heal all the genders from breast cancer or any other cancers.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

 

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