Suzy Hunt remembers the exact day she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It was May 23, 2007," the Destin resident said. "I was only 42 and I never had a mammogram."
Hunt had noticed some dimpling on her right breast and made an appointment to have it checked. From there, it was a whirlwind of important decisions, questions and uncertainty.
"The screening led to an ultrasound, which led to a biopsy, which led to stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma," she said. "I was diagnosed on a Wednesday and had the lumpectomy that Friday."
Once cancer is diagnosed, treatment begins almost immediately. It left little time for Hunt to process this life-altering experience.
"I was scared out of my mind," she said. "You hear the word cancer and you think it's a death sentence."
In search of some solace, Hunt reached out to a local support group in Niceville, aptly named the Cancer Sucks Club.
"It meant so much to sit with a group of women — some who fought ovarian, uterine or colon cancer," she said. "They were the only ones who knew what I was going through. There were survivors, five and 10 years out. To see that their lives were still going...it was my inspiration."
As Hunt's family and friends will tell you, the longtime local is not shy. At the time of her diagnosis and treatment, Hunt was working at a local radio station, where she utilized the platform and her vibrant personality to spread awareness. On air, she'd share witty catch phrases such as "Catch it on arrival, better chance of survival," "Save first base," or "Grope your wife, save a life." She was unafraid to talk about cancer and when she lost her hair during chemotherapy, she didn't always hide behind a wig.
"I thought I had a cute, round, bald head," Hunt said laughing. "I'm pretty out-there and I tend to deal with things by laughing."
Hunt ended every segment reminding listeners to schedule mammograms saying "Early detection saves lives. It saved mine."
Shortly after her diagnosis, Hunt's co-workers at Qantum Communications along with the local restaurant Zampieri's created the Suzy Fund at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast. The program offers free screenings and diagnostic mammograms to qualifying Okaloosa and Walton County women. At its first fundraiser in 2007, "The Breast Party in Town," the Suzy Fund raised $20,000. Today, the program is run by the Sacred Heart Foundation.
Hunt recalls once at a chamber event when a woman came up to her and thanked her for the Suzy Fund.
"She told me she found a lump in her breast, but she didn't have any insurance," Hunt explained. "She went to Sacred Heart and they told her about the Suzy Fund and she got the screening and it turned out she did not have cancer. She started to get teary-eyed and said 'You have no idea — you've made an impact on my life.'"
"To me, that was the most humbling moment," she said.
'A Badge of Honor'
In January 2008, Hunt was finally free of cancer after two surgeries, four rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments, but faced a new battle as her sister, Sandra Thompson, was diagnosed right after. Because of early detection, and knowing her family history, the cancer was caught before it reached an invasive stage.
Now, as events director at Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, Hunt signs her emails in pink script with "I am a breast cancer survivor!" While October is the official Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Hunt celebrates her survival all year round.
"I wear it as a badge of honor," she said.
According to Cancer.org, 1 in 8 women will have invasive breast cancer during her life. Over the years, breast cancer death rates have declined, thanks in part to early detection screenings and advances in treatment. Those who lead the crusade in breast cancer awareness, like Hunt, are the ones who make it possible for future cancer patients to not only survive, but thrive.
"When you look at the statistics — go out and have a drink with some of your friends. Someone's going to have it," she said. "That's why I wanted to use the public platform to raise awareness. I thought if I could save just one life and encourage women to get their mammograms... You never want to hear a doctor say 'I wish you would've come to me sooner.'"
It wasn't that long ago that the topic of breast cancer was taboo, which is why Hunt never knew that her great aunt had it until her own diagnosis 50 years later. That's why Hunt continues to talk openly and honestly about breast cancer.
Now, six and a half years since hearing those words, "You have cancer," Hunt keeps that part of her past with her, but continues to look forward.
"I remember losing my hair and finally shaving all of it off and looking into the mirror and thinking, 'The person looking back at me is pretty strong,'" she said. "Today, I look to make every year exciting. I'm doing my darndest to live life to the fullest."
Show your support:
Celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness month this October with these pink-related events in the area.
Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (MSABC) event at 9 a.m. Oct. 26 at Village Baptist Church on Matthews Boulevard in Destin. Registration begins at 8 a.m. Registration is free and people can sign up as teams, or as individuals. Sign up online at www.makingstrideswalk.org/emeraldcoast, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The 1st Annual Fore for Her golf outing is scheduled for Oct. 26 at the Links of Sandestin. Tee off time is 12 p.m. For more information, visit foreher.net.
For more information on the Suzy Fund, call Sacred Heart at 278-3980.