Susan Hilburger shares how she overcame great odds by not only surviving brain cancer, but becoming a mother
Prior to being diagnosed with brain cancer, I worked for 11 years as a computer engineer for PepsiCo in New York City. Then I moved to Las Vegas to work as a technical project manager for a large casino company.
I’d always maintained a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and exercise. My position was stressful at times, but I accepted it as part of the job.
Then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2011, I had a grand mal seizure. My parents, who were visiting from out of town, immediately called 911 for assistance. The paramedics arrived and transported me to the emergency room. The doctors did a CAT scan and found a brain tumor on the left parietal side of my brain.
The diagnosis hit very close to home because my grandfather and my sister—a mother of three young children—both passed away from a glioblastoma (GBM) brain tumor. Having witnessed two people that I loved go through their battle, I was ready to face the challenge ahead. I knew the severity of the disease and the extensive medical treatment that it would require.
At the emergency room, a doctor referred me to a highly regarded neurosurgeon, Dr. Kelly Schmidt. Two days later, Dr. Schmidt performed a craniotomy and removed a tumor on the left side of my brain. My tumor was approximately seven centimeters in diameter. I stayed in the hospital for five days after the surgery and then began a rehabilitation program that lasted about two weeks.
Shortly thereafter, I was referred to Dr. Anthony Nguyen, medical oncologist, and Dr. Matthew Schwartz, radiation oncologist at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada (CCCN) for chemotherapy and radiation treatment. My doctors at CCCN sent my pathology reports to MD Anderson and UCLA Medical Center for further review. Upon receiving the results, it was determined I had a grade-4 GMB. These are the most invasive type of brain tumor, and they spread very quickly.
I immediately started a chemotherapy plan, which consisted of Temodar and radiation treatments that lasted about six weeks. Temodar is used for combating GBMs and is often paired with radiotherapy for optimal results. After radiation, I continued to use Temodar for two years.
In May 2013, my treatments ended and my cancer was in remission, but I continued to see my doctors at CCCN for periodic brain scans and follow-up appointments every three to six months.
After experiencing this life-altering diagnosis, I quit my job and decided to focus on my two passions: yoga and nutrition. I teach yoga at various studios, corporations and gyms throughout Las Vegas. This includes The Caring Place, which provides no-cost services such as massage, yoga, reiki, healing bells, support groups and so much more that help empower and educate cancer survivors and their loved ones. I started as a patient at there when I was diagnosed, and one year later I was blessed to be able to teach yoga to other cancer survivors. I have now been teaching there for five years.
I am also very happy to say that after going through this battle, I met the love of my life: Juan Carlos. We married in the fall of 2014. Then, on September 13, 2015, I delivered a beautiful and healthy baby girl named Gianna. I call her my miracle baby because after weeks of radiation and enduring years of chemotherapy treatments, I didn’t think having a baby was possible. I was a high-risk patient, but my pregnancy went well and I didn’t have any complications. I even taught yoga throughout my pregnancy—up to two weeks before Gianna was born.
I am extremely grateful for the excellent care I received from my neurosurgeon, and the oncologist, radiation oncologist and staff at CCCN. They were like family to me. They worked so hard to help me beat this disease!
Susan, now 40 years old, is on the board of directors for the 2017 Desert Gray Matters 5k.