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Cancer survivor offers hope, comfort to patients

Editor’s note: This story by Cathy Dyson will appear in the Healthy Living section on Sunday, April 1.


An elderly woman with long hair was about to start chemotherapy for cancer, and a technician was explaining the possible side effects.

The woman started to cry.  The diagnosis had been overwhelming enough, and the thought of losing her hair was unbearable. The technician called for her supervisor, Sue Anne Hill. She would know what to say.

Hill shared her own story, that she was 25 when she was told she had three months to live. An aggressive, fast-growing cancer called non-Hodgkins lymphoma had formed a mass in her chest the size of a softball.

Doctors couldn’t remove it, and chemotherapy and radiation didn’t stop its growth. There wasn’t time to search for a bone-marrow match, so her only option was to have a doctor remove her marrow and put it back into her body, in the hope it would generate cancer-free cells.

That was 17 years ago. Hill not only survived the ordeal—and being bald for two years—but she also got back a healthy mane of long, curly hair.

Hill told the patient she would get hers back, too. The woman touched Hill’s curls and smiled.

“They’re thinking it’s the end, and I can tell them, ‘Hey, I was Stage 4 terminal and I’m still sitting here,’ ” Hill said. “It’s nice for them to see somebody who’s been through it.”


In 2000, a story in The Free Lance–Star described how Hill was still smiling after battles with cancer and treatments. Her co-workers suggested an update, saying Hill continues to inspire those around her.

Now 42, she is the manager of Medical Imaging of Fredericksburg. She supervises about 75 people in an office adjacent to Mary Washington Hospital.

Hill might never have  sought a management position if cancer hadn’t struck her.

“When we first met, she was shy and kind of a follower,” said her husband, Mike. “Now that she’s had this life-changing experience, she’s definitely a leader. She’s the most strong-willed person I know.”

Hill figured if she could survive cancer, she could take on any challenge. She went from being a sonographer to a supervisor in the radiology department to manager of the building.

She also refused to let the varied health health problems she’s faced take over her life. In fact, she sometimes forgets to mention them at all when she’s talking about her medical history.

“If those of us that face daily challenges let them define us and drag us down, then the battle has been lost,” Hill said in an email.


Hill has passed along her philosophy and her patient-focused care to those around her.

About 10 years ago, she created a new position for Sonya Byrd, a clerk who still files records but spends much of her time out on the floor with patients. Byrd offers coffee and tea, heated sheets and a shoulder to lean on.

“I hear their whole life stories,” Byrd said, particularly of cancer patients. “It comforts them.”

Others tend to patients, too, but it’s in Byrd’s job description to be on the lookout for those who are stressed and anxious. Byrd regularly holds up Hill as a positive example.

“She gives us hope, and hope is what we all need,” Byrd said.

Last fall, Caroline Gosling, a facilities coordinator at Medical Imaging, turned to Hill after her uncle was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. Hill answered her questions, from medical and personal perspectives. She described the scans and tests he would go through, the treatment he would need and the impact the illness would have  on the family.

 “She gave me a better idea of what to expect, and everything she said was right-on,” Gosling said.


Hill’s office is at the far end of the building, and the windows beyond her desk face the parking lot. Staff members say that when she sees patients struggling to walk to their appointments, she calls for wheelchairs for them.

Or, if they’re obviously lost, she heads out the back door and asks where they need to be. Then  she walks along with them to their destinations.

When associates face their own medical problems, she sends gift baskets and encouraging words. The expressions mean something  coming from her, said Olivia Neal, an ultrasound supervisor.

 “She’s walked that walk and came out the other side,” Neal said.

Others in the department have followed her lead, said Hill’s supervisor, Barry Nielsen.

“Her style has kind of rubbed off on us,” said Phyllis Dorsey, the support services supervisor, “and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”


When Mike Hill describes his wife as miraculous, he’s not just talking about the life-threatening disease she beat. Six years after her treatments, Hill defied the odds again when she got pregnant.

 Because of the extreme chemotherapy and radiation Hill received, doctors assumed she wouldn’t be able to conceive again. But she and Mike welcomed Ryan in February 2000. Their daughter, Morgan, was born in 1993, only 10 months before Hill was diagnosed with cancer. The family lives in Stafford County.

Just because Hill is free of lymphoma doesn’t mean she has a clean bill of health—as everyone in her office knows. Her co-workers have a list of her surgeries and hospitalizations, as well as the medicine she takes.

Hill developed congestive heart failure in October 2004, followed by diabetes a month later. The diabetes probably didn’t have anything to do with her cancer.  But some doctors believe the extreme treatments aimed at her chest may have damaged her heart.

In October 2009, Hill needed a pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat. The next month, she had a blood clot deep in her arm. She has a herniated disc in her back from months spent in a hospital bed, and she has trouble climbing stairs.

But her co-workers—as well as her family—know it takes more than aches and pains, cancer and heart failure  to knock out Hill.

Morgan has grown up amid her mother’s health problems and watched her persevere.

“She inspires me every day,” Morgan said. “I hate to hear people say, ‘I don’t feel good’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ My mom doesn’t feel good every day, and she gets up and does stuff.”

Cathy Dyson:   540/374-5425