The Unexpected Journey of Cancer in China

When Susan Conley moved to Beijing with her family, she expected an adventure — not a breast cancer diagnosis. Here, the author of “The Foremost Good Fortune,” describes the role China and her family played in her recovery.

Q: How did you find out that you had breast cancer and how did you react?

A: When I found my breast lumps, I was lying in bed in Beijing, resting my fingers on my collarbone while I talked to my two boys about going swimming. I knew something was wrong. I kept wondering, “What are these marble-like things doing in my chest wall?”

Q: Can you describe your interactions with the Chinese health-system?

A: My breast surgeon was a respected Chinese doctor who was very dismissive of my concerns at first. In 2007, China hadn’t yet seen the epidemic-like numbers of breast cancer we were seeing in the West — my appointments with this doctor became a kind of cultural standoff. He didn’t want to perform any kind of surgery.

I insisted on surgery because my American doctor pressed me to pursue it. Once the surgery began, and malignancies were found, the Chinese surgeon conducted an on-the-spot lumpectomy (a good thing). What wasn’t so good is he began pushing me to have a mastectomy (right then and there).

Thankfully, I resisted. My family and I went back to our Beijing high-rise and made plans to return to the U.S. for follow-up surgery.

Q: What was the most challenging part of having cancer?

A: How to talk to my boys about my breast cancer. At first I got it wrong. I thought it was my job to protect them from the disease. So I told them nothing.

Then I received a gift — I was able to visit a cancer center for families coping with the disease. I met the director. She talked about how exhausting it must have been to fight cancer and to hide it from my boys. She encouraged me to talk to them honestly and gave me language I could use to express my feelings. Simple words. Honest words. And once I told the boys, life got much simpler.

Q: Was it difficult to return to ‘normal’ life after cancer? Did anything in particular help?

A: I began to sense things I used to hold as important — material things and the approval of others — weren’t anymore. I simply didn’t care about them anymore.

Shortly after my treatment ended in the U.S. we returned to China. Though their health-care system is different than ours, the country is amazing. It’s steeped in history, folk tales and in alternative medicine.

I began having acupuncture and doing yoga and meditation as soon as I returned to the country.

All of these things helped me realize life had changed — because of my cancer — for the better.