A #DisruptAging Story from Japanese American Susan Matsuko Shinagawa, 59 years old, cancer survivor.


“I was in my early thirties and working at a San Diego cancer center. I didn’t really know anything about cancer. Cancer was something that happened to other people.

“One year, a friend of mine taught a class on breast self-examination. I attended and immediately began practicing it monthly. A few months later, I felt a lump in my right breast. I followed it through a couple of menstrual cycles, got a mammogram, and went to a surgical oncologist based on the radiologist’s recommendation.

“The oncologist conducted a clinical exam and looked at my family history and my films – which didn’t show anything. He told me, ‘Susan, you have nothing to worry about. You’re too young to have breast cancer, have no family history, and, besides, Asian women don’t get breast cancer.’

“I was elated but a little questioning because the lump was there. I could feel it, and I knew that it wasn’t quite right. I went to see another surgeon who told me the same thing (with 99.99% certainty), but I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I wanted to be 100% sure and scheduled a biopsy.

“I came home to a message on my answering machine. It was the surgeon and he left me four different numbers to reach him on a Friday night, so I knew that it was not good. Although I already knew what he was going to say, I was still shocked. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god. I’ve got cancer. I’m going to die. It’s going to be a horrible death. I’m going to commit suicide… Oh my god. I’ve got cancer. I better do something.’ Even today, it shocks me that I went to that place. I was an educated woman who worked at a cancer center, but I had the same gut-wrenching reaction that a lot of people did.

“Throughout the 10-year process of dealing with three cancer diagnoses, I went from not knowing a lot about myself, my body, or how to deal with the medical system to being a strong advocate for myself. What I tell people is to learn as much as you can about your disease. Information is your power. If you know what you’re talking about and have the research to back you up, don’t back down, because it’s your life. That’s how I felt. I was fighting for my life.”

Susan Matsuko Shinagawa, 59
Cancer Survivor
Japanese American

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Nina Ho