Standing up to a dreadful disease
A survivor encourages advocacy and education during Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Breast-cancer survivor and patient advocate Suzanne Bria at home in Orinda.
Noah Berger photo

02 October 2002 | College of Letters and Science student adviser Suzanne Bria says her life changed dramatically and forever when she was 48. That was the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was shocked, for two reasons,” recalls the 17-year veteran of academic advising, who has become an advocate for breast cancer research and a mentor to others with the disease. “I had no history of cancer in my family, and I have an assertive, positive-thinking personality that leads me to be surprised when bad things happen.”

A routine mammogram in June 1998 showed an “architectural distortion” in her right breast. Doctors recommended an excisional biospy, a surgical procedure in which an entire lump or suspicious area is removed for diagnosis. The biopsy revealed that Bria had an early stage of breast cancer.

She underwent a partial mastectomy, guided by magnetic resonance imaging, and a sentinel-lymph-node biopsy, followed by five months of radiation treatments. After it was over, she was declared cancer-free — although she realized, as she later reported in an article for Berkeley’s Breast Cancer Center Newsletter, that recurrence would remain a lifelong possibility. During this trying time she took a nose-dive emotionally, she says, but she and her husband, Ted, began building a new home in Orinda to keep themselves going. Today they are enjoying it, along with their golden retriever, Gemma, and tuxedoed cat, Jasper.

Making time to promote awareness
Bria’s natural energy and enthusiasm for life soon reasserted themselves. She pulled herself out of her depression by joining Berkeley’s Breast Health Committee, co-founded three years ago by Trish Ratto, manager of Health*Matters, and Peg Berdahl, the chancellor’s wife, who is also a breast cancer survivor. Her time was already sliced pretty thin — Bria was writing poetry in addition to working as a half-time academic adviser in L&S and a part-time English literature and composition instructor at UC Berkeley Extension and some local colleges — but she took on committee work to help promote breast cancer awareness on the Berkeley campus.

“Suzanne Bria is a dream to work with,” enthuses Peg Berdahl,
whose work with Bria and others on the Breast Health Committee helps coordinate the campus’s breast-cancer-awareness activities each year. Berdahl recalls that when her daughter, Daphne, was also diagnosed with breast cancer, “Suzanne was right there working with her. She’s great that way, in addition to always being the first volunteer to carry out any of our ideas.”

Bria is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, education, and activism to combat the psychological repercussions of living with breast cancer. By the time she had completed her own treatment in late 1998, she had done so much research that she was nearly a walking encyclopedia of breast cancer information. She vowed to put her experience to good use in helping others, becoming involved in an informal mentoring network both on and off campus, then joining the National Breast Cancer Coalition, an advocacy group of breast cancer organizations based in Washington, D.C.

No certain cure in sight
“Through my research into the disease, I learned that breast cancer has reached almost epidemic proportions in this country, which astounded me,” she says. “It’s the number-one killer of women between the ages of 35 and 55 in the United States. And although many women survive because of early detection and treatment, we still have no cure that we can be certain of.” Approximately 190,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S., according to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and 40,000 of those diagnosed die each year. An American woman has a one-in-eight chance of getting the disease during her lifetime.

Through her work with the National Breast Cancer Coalition, Bria believes she is making a difference. “The coalition works with Congress on funding for research and legislation to help people with the disease,” she says. “Last year I went to my first advocacy conference, in D.C., for three days of workshops and presentations. It was an invigorating, enlightening experience.”

On the final day of the conference, about 800 women rallied on the steps of Congress to lobby their representatives. “We in the Califor-nia contingent talked with Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi about the need for increased funding for research into the environmental causes of breast cancer, and told them what it’s like to be a survivor,” Bria recalls.

Bria and her coalition partners lobbied for more funding to step up research into the genetic and hormonal causes of breast cancer as well. “The amount of funding that is going into those areas of research is completely inadequate if our goals are to eradicate this terrible disease,” she says. “That’s where we should be putting our research dollars now.”

Out of earshot, out of mind?
She believes there’s an illusion in this country that women are safe from breast cancer as long as they get regular check-ups. “We’ve pretty much reached the limit of what we can do to increase awareness of early detection using conventional methods such as mammograms and self-examination. But there’s been so much publicity about breast cancer that people somehow think it’s gone away, that it’s not a problem anymore.”

To become more involved in the battle to increase funding for breast- cancer research, Bria has decided to retire from Berkeley at the end of the year to pursue advocacy and mentoring full time. Next March she will attend an intensive week-long training course, called Project LEAD, designed to help breast-cancer activists influence research and public policy. The training, developed by the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund, will allow her to participate in peer reviews of breast-cancer-research proposals — “not just as a token survivor,” she says, “but as a patient advocate who has training in the science of breast cancer.”

Meanwhile, she still considers herself very much “a breast-cancer activist in the making,” and a mentor interested in helping other women diagnosed with breast cancer in a variety of ways. “I would encourage any newly diagnosed woman who came to me to stay active, to maintain a sense of humor, and to try writing for self-realization, communication, and healing,” she says. “Those are activities that have really helped me.”

For more information about activities during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit or call Health*Matters at 643-4646.


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