Sue Miller is a survivor. Never mind that she’s marked her 82nd birthday and is now in the care of The Denver Hospice. This former model, author and breast cancer survivor could not be more poised or passionate as she discusses her current mission: “I want to help take the fear out of hospice.”
Sue was a successful model in her mid-30s and had been modeling for more than 20 years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had done a photo shoot and got the cover shot. It came out on a Sunday when I was still in the hospital. I remember looking at the magazine in the hospital, and I couldn’t believe I was the same person as the one on that cover.”
Sue continues, “At that time, nobody talked about breast cancer. People were still afraid it was contagious. So after my mastectomy, I lost my modeling career. I was mad at the world. One day I walked into a clothing store and the woman asked if I would do a fashion show. I started crying and ran back to my car. As I sat there with tears streaming down my face, I realized I could do something about this. I went back into the store and told her I would do the fashion show, but only if the models were women who had mastectomies. She finally agreed. I found four women who were breast cancer survivors to do it with me.”
With a smile on her face, Sue reminisced about the moment she realized this was worth doing.
“After that show, I decided everybody needed to know how good this was. My hope was that it could help people not be so frightened by breast cancer. I asked the Jewish Community Center if we could use the auditorium and found 15 more women who had mastectomies and said they would do a fashion show. The night of the show, the girls were getting dressed backstage. I was thinking to myself, who is going to come to this? As I’m walking down the stairs, I heard laughter. I peeked around the corner, and saw all of the women laughing about how to get the clothes to fit their chests. I thought to myself, even if no one shows up, that’s okay, because these women have found a home. From then on, it just grew into what is now Day of Caring. We hosted our 37th fundraising event this past spring.”
That success has its spotlight moment in Sue’s book I’m Tougher Than I Look. “I finally decided it was time to write about how I saw life,” she says. “It shares my very personal life, but I wanted people to know that you can have childhood abuse and come out of it and be okay. Everybody has to find his or her way, and it wasn’t always easy for me.”
Easy? No. Exciting? Yes.
Sue was in her 70s when she earned her Master’s in Psychology and interned with The Denver Hospice before opening her private counseling practice. When she became seriously ill last winter, she and her family re-connected with The Denver Hospice, requesting our services and support. Sue recently invited us to join her and The Denver Hospice social worker Virginia Eiseman in her beautiful, welcoming home to share her story. She wanted to share her views on hospice, hoping they might help other families choose this all-encompassing end-of-life care.
She observed, “If you mention hospice to someone, they immediately think that you’re dying. But the care I get is what’s really important. They aren’t caring for me because I’m dying, they’re caring for me because I’m living. Entering hospice care can bring about some very good things. It is nothing to fear.”
Sue drew from her own experience to underscore the point. “When I came home from the hospital, I was truly dying. I began planning my funeral. It was an awful time. When my doctor examined me, she said she wanted me to get off all my medication and sleep as long as I wanted. I slept for five or six days. One morning I woke up, and it was just amazing. I said to my daughter, ‘I want to stay up a while.’ From that point on I started to get better.
“I don’t know how long I’ll survive, but hospice has given me the chance to do things I didn’t have the chance to do, like writing stories and looking up my family history. It’s given me life. You hear a lot of stories about hospice coming in and how wonderful they are when people are dying, but you don’t hear a lot of stories about hospice coming in and helping people while they’re living. I think that’s what’s important.”
Social worker Ginny Eiseman added, “When Sue talks about those first five days with hospice where she was dying, it was really bad. Everyone was just being present and helping each other through it. There is a moment where you just have to face death and take it in. By going to bed those five days, she faced that moment. Her family stayed and I feel that’s what hospice does for people – it allows that space for loved ones to use that time to cherish each other.”
Sue believes that “each of us must accept death as a spiritual thing in our heart.” With the support of The Denver Hospice and her family, she continues to positively affect lives around her and live out her journey.