Job Spotlight: Suzan Rivers, breast cancer survivor, storyteller

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 1, 2013 

When Suzan Rivers was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2008, she began writing down her feelings on little scraps of paper.

"I had teenage girls at the time, and I was hiding from them how bad things were," said the 57-year-old cancer survivor. "So, instead of crying all the time, I would write and write to get it out of me. I didn't even have a journal. I had a dishpan and I would write reams of feelings, and just throw them in the pan."

Soon the dishpan was so full that Rivers' daughters suggested she write a book. Now, she's the author of a funny, light-hearted survival guide for breast cancer patients. The book, titled "Dear Girlfriend: A Handheld Walk through Breast Cancer," was published earlier this year by CreateSpace, a print-on-demand self-publishing company owned by Amazon.

Rivers, a Columbus native who lives in Macon, Ga., was a librarian before her diagnosis. Since writing the book, she has also become a public speaker and storyteller, traveling to Columbus and other cities to educate women and men about the disease. She recently did a series of talks at Pratt & Whitney. In both the book and her speaking presentations, she uses humor to engage her audience.

One of the stories she tells is about the prosthesis that she called Marilyn Monroe because it was the perfect breast. But it was uncomfortable, and she was always losing it.

"I would come in the house and just yank it out of my shirt and throw it somewhere," she said. Her husband, Walker, called it "Kitty." And one day, when she couldn't find it, he walked around the house saying, "Hey, Kitty, Kitty."

Yet, battling cancer was no picnic, she said. After being diagnosed, she had a lumpectomy and radiation. Her doctors in Macon thought everything was fine, but a year later the cancer returned. So, she came to Columbus for treatment at the John B. Amos Cancer Center.

Dr. Andrew Pippas was her oncologist. Dr. Kenneth Smith was her surgeon. Dr. Vincent Naman was her plastic surgeon. All three doctors endorsed her book.

In all, Rivers had 14 surgeries. She also had radiation and chemotherapy. At one point, she spent 11 days in the hospital because of a staph infection. And there were other complications.

"I had so much radiation, that my implant ripped out three times," she said. "And I joked with my doctor and said, 'You should have just put in a zipper.'

"Cancer is not funny, not one thing is funny about it," she said. "But God just allowed me to keep my sense of humor."

Rivers said her writing helped her get through the disease, and now she wants to help other women by sharing her story.

"I concentrate on telling people what the doctors and dietitians told me about how you can prevent breast cancer," she said. "A lot of people think there's nothing they can do, but a lot of it has to do with diet. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, ground golden flaxseed can help."

The Ledger-Enquirer recently spoke with Rivers about her book and how she got into the publishing business. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes your book unique?

It's extremely personal. I didn't hold back anything at all. I talk about what you do about everything, including sex when you're trying to get through cancer, just like I was talking to my close girlfriend. Because when I was going through it, I had so many questions, but I felt funny talking to the doctor because he's a man. I felt other women may have questions about this, that, or the other, too. So, I wrote the book.

Is there any information that you think is critical for women to know about the disease?

The main thing that I would like to get out is something really simple, and that is that breast cancer, even though it's going to hit one in eight women, is very curable if it's caught in time. If you catch it while it's still in the breast and that tissue can be removed, you've got a really, really good chance of survival. So, if you've got a lump, don't be satisfied with just having an ultrasound or a mammogram. Because I had cancer, and I had a mammogram, and it came back normal. But I went ahead and had a needle biopsy where they took out a very tiny portion of the lump and examined it under a microscope and they could tell that, yes, it was cancer.

Have you written any other books?

I've also written a novel that I'm going to try to publish after the first of the year and it's set in Columbus. The name of it is "The Flappers Ain't Dead and the Hippies Ain't Old." And it's about a family in Columbus.

How does CreateSpace print-on-demand publishing work?

I don't have a garage full of books. They sell the books and then they send me a royalty check. They're an actual publisher. But what they do is they don't print a lot of them in paper. They print as people order them.

Who is buying the books?

I have sold them all over the world. I look at the reports that CreateSpace sends to me every month. I've sold them in Israel, Australia, Europe. It's just so much fun. Every month it may be just one sold in this country, or two in that country. It's kind of cool because people buy them through Amazon or Barnes & Noble online. You can order in paper or Nook and Kindle.

What tip would you give to someone who wants to publish a book?

There's a service at the University of Georgia that will help you start a small business. They told me a lot about publishing online and all of that. It was very helpful.

Why did you decide to go with print-on-demand?

I looked at all different kinds of publishing. I looked at the traditional publishing where you submit your manuscript to various publishers and found out that the best way to get a manuscript to a publisher is to have an agent. Well, it's just as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher. So I went to a seminar in Pennsylvania and learned about publishing, and the main speaker was Jack Canfield who wrote the "Chicken Soup (for the Soul)" books. He was talking about all the different ways to get published and it appealed to me to do print-on-demand publishing because you actually have a publisher and you don't have a garage full of books. And they have connections to put your book as a mail-order book, or online-order book, through Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.

Is that the current trend in publishing?

So many people are not going into the bookstores anymore. They want to order it online and it gets there in two or three days, and they don't have to go in the snow and rain to the bookstore. They can just download it on their Nook or Kindle. So it's kind of hassle-free for the writers and for the readers. That's the way publishing is going now.

What impact has the book project had on your life?

It's therapeutic for me to feel like I'm helping somebody else get through breast cancer because when something that catastrophic happens to you, you just feel like, wow, you know, you've been shot down or like somebody has dropped a boulder on your head. You feel like you have to do something with it to make good out of it. I've always been an optimistic person. I've always tried to make lemonade out of lemons.


Name: Suzan Rivers

Age: 57

Profession: Author, speaker and Southern storyteller

Hometown: Columbus

Current residence: Macon

Previous job: School librarian

Family: Husband, Walker; three grown daughters, Laurel Rivers and identical twins Blythe and Olivia

Leisure time: Writing, reading, dancing, spending time with family and relaxing at a cottage her husband built in the woods

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