Fighting cancer, for herself and others

Looking around her office, she is reminded of her life’s accomplishments. The diplomas on the wall, a picture of her smiling, blond-haired niece, fresh cut yellow daisies neatly arranged in a crystal clear vase so that the aroma lightly fills the air and a window view of large oak trees blowing in signs of life. Students outside are running on campus trying to get to their next class. On her desk, little angel figurines with hopeful faces fill the corners, and cards wishing “Get Well Soon” are neatly arranged on her bookshelves.

Susan Rabel serves as the director of The Hope Lodge, a residence built by the American Cancer Society for patients undergoing chemotherapy at Moffitt Cancer Center. Every day, she deals with cancer patients and their families. Her entire career has been built around cancer research and outreach programs. On a daily basis, Rabel strives to help cancer patients go on with their lives and believe they will survive.

Six months ago, the counselor discovered the real feeling of becoming the patient — she was diagnosed with breast cancer after she spent every day of her career helping others battle cancer.

“I couldn’t believe that someone who dedicates their life to the disease would actually have to get it,” Rabel said. “It took me a long time not to be in complete denial.”

Rabel was hired in March 2001. Hope Lodge is a place for patients to stay as long as needed while undergoing chemotherapy. Since Moffitt is right across the street, it’s a good alternative for cancer treatment.

“I feel like I work in their home, so we get close to the residents,” Rabel said.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Rabel underwent radiation treatment as well as a lumpectomy, which removed just the tumor rather than the entire breast. She was then required to have nine months of chemotherapy.

Working across the street from Moffitt makes it easy for her to get chemotherapy.

“One day, there were 14 of us from Hope Lodge waiting to get treatment at the hospital,” Rabel said. “I just walk over with everyone else.

“Being here with these patients has given me strength. Every day, I see so many who are so much worse off than I am. It really keeps me grounded.”

Working with cancer patients every day hasn’t made her feel like she is treated differently by the patients, but it helps her relate with them. She is now able to share experiences and answer more personal questions.

Not only the patients, but also her job has taken on a whole new meaning.

“I used to be very high strung and very Type-A personality, but I’m so mellow now that when something happens I just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘it’s not cancer,'” Rabel said.

While she used to consider herself a workaholic, Rabel has made an effort to relax more and to learn to enjoy life in its simplicity.

“Since my cancer experience, I feel like I could live with so much less to be free. Things that used to be important to me aren’t anymore and things that I never thought were important are.”

Rabel completed her chemotherapy and is recovering. She worked throughout the entire process to help keep her mind off of the disease. Some days she made it to the end, but most she would leave early. She used the weekends to catch up on sleep and stay close to home.

Now, she looks back on her experience and finally the denial is subsiding.

“I know the statistics.” Rabel said. “I know that one in every eight women will get cancer. I naively think, ‘OK, I’ll be the one out of the eight in my family and hope that no one else has to go through it.'”

She picked up the mail and began to read new “Get Well” cards.

“Would I do anything differently? No, I think I did the entire experience as well as I could,” said Rabel, as she adds the new card to her collection right next to the little angels.