Going Full Bore
Susan Leighton, a 19-year survivor, is a powerful advocate for ovarian cancer research. Her advocacy, which began locally in northern Alabama, has reached the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense.
By Sue Rochman
When Susan Leighton entered Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport on a science scholarship, she thought she was on course toward a medical degree. But Leighton, now 67, found her journey rerouted, first by family commitments and then by love. Decades later, in 1997, a stage IIIC ovarian cancer diagnosis brought new challenges—and possibilities.
Leighton has shared her ovarian cancer story too many times to count. She’s spoken in rooms filled with medical students, educating them about ovarian cancer’s symptoms. She’s testified before Congress to garner support for ovarian cancer research. She’s personified hope on telephone calls with women newly diagnosed with cancer or those who have had a recurrence. Her story is backed by a vast knowledge of ovarian cancer science and bolstered by its uniqueness: There are not many 19-year ovarian cancer survivors.
A Winding Road
Leighton’s indirect path to cancer research advocacy began at Centenary and then shifted to the University of Texas at Austin, where she transferred during her junior year. Her father died in 1972, as she was starting her senior year. “My life took a turn and I went home” to Bossier City, Louisiana, “and helped my mom for a while,” says Leighton. After that, “the money had just dried up and so I was not able to finish college.”
Unwilling to give up her dream of going to medical school, Leighton joined the U.S. Army in 1975, seeing it as an affordable way to continue her education. But two years into her enlistment, she says, “Once again, life threw something in my path. This time it was my husband.”
Her husband, Bill, also was in the Army. Leighton left the service and followed him to posts throughout Germany while she worked for the Army as a civilian employee. When Bill was stationed in Turkey, where family members were not permitted to live, Leighton moved back to the U.S. with their then 5-year-old daughter, Teresa, in 1983. The pair lived with her mother in Bossier City, and Leighton returned to school. While working full-time at a local hospital, she earned both a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in counseling psychology in less than two years.
Leighton and Teresa returned to Germany to rejoin Bill in 1987. As director of civilian personnel for the Army base at Neu-Ulm, in 1991 Leighton had the task of breaking the news to 5,500 German and 800 American civilian employees that the installation would be closing and they would be losing their jobs. The same year, after the base had shut down, the family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Huntsville, Alabama. They chose the city because it had good schools and was near a military base where Bill could complete his service and retire from active duty.
A Loud Whisper
On an afternoon in June 1997, as she was getting ready for Teresa’s graduation from Grissom High School in Huntsville, Leighton, then 48, discovered the dress she planned to wear no longer fit across her stomach. Puzzled, she threw on a pair of elastic-waist pants and headed for the school stadium. There, as she and Bill climbed the steps to their seats, she found she couldn’t catch her breath. The next morning, she had indigestion, diarrhea and back pain.
Leighton went to see her family doctor, who recommended antacid medication. Then she and Teresa hit the road for a mother-daughter graduation celebration: a weekend in Nashville, Tennessee, about two hours north. The pair made it as far as the Opryland mall in Nashville. In less than an hour, they were back in the car. Leighton, who was in so much pain she couldn’t drive, handed the keys to her daughter and said, “Take me home.”