Susan K. Axler, 70, of Philadelphia, a metastatic breast cancer survivor who used her experiences to encourage and inform others, died Aug. 17 of complications from the disease at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1988, when she was 41, Mrs. Axler was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next three decades, she underwent a lumpectomy, radiation treatment, a mastectomy, and after an eight-year remission ending in 2000, various therapies to fight the spread of cancer to her bones.
Instead of turning inward with despair, Mrs. Axler was emboldened to act.
"I started on this winding road when I questioned my route and I tiptoed gingerly at first, then raced along, often stumbling, to physicians and organizations that could make a difference and help me with my decisions," she told a 2013 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington.
"I have traveled the path of researching, support groups, consultations, treatment and therapies. My road is not one solid concrete walkway."
As her disease evolved, she learned to live with it and remain hopeful, and part of her mission became encouraging others to move in the same direction.
"She made a huge impact," her family said in a tribute.
Mrs. Axler became a patient-advocate grant reviewer. She spoke up for breast cancer survivors when the National Institutes of Health, the Susan G. Komen organization, the University of Pennsylvania, and other groups applied for major research grants. She also influenced others to do likewise.
One was Joanne Bowes, a breast cancer survivor whom Mrs. Axler steered toward the contacts and training necessary for patient-advocacy work. Bowes did some grant review work. She now serves as an advocate on a clinical cancer trial at the University of Pennsylvania and is asked by researchers for her comments on various trial protocols. She has found the work immensely satisfying.
"The scientists will tell you they tend to get lost in the trees and they don't see the forest," Bowes said. "We can say, 'Hey, wait a minute, this is what it was like for me when I was going through the process.' "
While living in Brigantine, N.J., from 2005 to 2012, Mrs. Axler became a leader with the South Jersey Cancer Fund. She helped raise money for cancer patients who, because of big medical bills, could not afford to pay for utilities or to travel to medical appointments.
She volunteered for the American Cancer Society's "Reach to Recovery" program, providing encouraging tales of her experiences to newly diagnosed metastatic breast cancer patients, and then to patients with recurring metastatic disease. In 2001, she helped create a handbook for women with the recurring cancer.
Mostly, she led by example, showing vulnerable cancer patients how to carry on with their lives, and even how to thrive, despite the devastating medical news, her family said.
In a 2015 email, Mrs. Axler described her volunteer work, but in a light vein, so that her sons could be proud "of their old decrepit mother."
Mrs. Axler told of being chosen as a patient advocate to serve on a special panel convened by the American Association for Cancer Research Survivor/Scientist program. "We give our perspective," she wrote.
She described feeling uplifted at being singled out for the challenge. "I felt proud and hopeful that changes are happening," she wrote.
Cancer, however, did not define Mrs. Axler. She was a wife, an energetic mother of two, grandmother of four, and a former fourth-grade teacher and reading specialist in the Neshaminy School District whose pupils still remembered her years later. She taught from the mid-1980s until retiring in 2002.
Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Lansdowne, reared a family in Richboro, Bucks County, and split her time in the last 12 years between Brigantine and Philadelphia.
She had a passion for literature, music, and poetry, which she shared with her school students, family, and friends.
"She made everybody feel that they were special," said her husband, Michael Axler. "No matter what condition she was in, she turned the subject to what their life was like. It made them feel important and loved."
Besides her husband of 49 years, she is survived by sons Neil Axler and Eric Axler; four grandchildren; and a brother.
Funeral services were Aug. 20. Entombment was in Roosevelt Memorial Park, Trevose.