During a long career in the food industry, Susan Greelish, 64, has prided herself on forming strong, familial-like bonds with her colleagues and customers. When it came to her treatment for breast cancer and kidney cancer, however, these feelings of kinship and trust were missing — until she found her newest family just a few miles from home.
In 2018, after Greelish was diagnosed with breast cancer a second time, her longtime friend and business partner Laurie Peck recommended she switch her care to Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. There she found the care and connections she was looking for, along with a sweet way of nourishing them. She came to chemotherapy and radiation appointments bearing fresh-baked muffins, cookies, and homemade candied ginger — an ingredient credited by many for helping with the side-effects of cancer treatment like nausea and upset stomach — for her clinicians and fellow patients.
Now in remission, Greelish continues to be monitored in the Adult Survivorship Program at Dana-Farber Brigham for any issues related to her past cancers. As part of the program, she has access to regular recommendations on exercise and diet plans, consultations with a psychologist or social worker, and support from other survivors through support groups.
“From the first time I drove into the parking garage at Dana-Farber Brigham, I felt the difference,” says Greelish. “Whatever problem I have, I know they will be on top of it.”
Life takes a detour
Greelish’s love affair with food began while growing up outside Boston in her native Lynn, Mass. She learned about different types of food at block parties in her richly diverse neighborhood, and how to roll grape leaves from her best friend’s Armenian mother. By her late teens, she was working in the food industry, and eventually held jobs in Florida and Pennsylvania as well as in her home state.
Then her busy, hard-working life — which also included a son and dog — took a detour in early 2003.
“I couldn’t figure out why my giant schnauzer had started butting me on the chest, and one time she hit my left breast so hard it hurt — and that’s when I found the lump,” recalls Greelish. “I thought ‘What’s this?’ and called the doctor.”
A mammogram, ultrasound, and two biopsies confirmed she had breast cancer, and Greelish had chemotherapy, radiation, and two lumpectomies in her left breast. Because she was in a new job and not yet accrued vacation time, she worked through the entire process. Her breast cancer went into remission, but in 2008 she learned she had kidney cancer and had to have her right kidney removed.
Greelish was not yet a Dana-Farber Brigham patient, and felt unhappy with her care — especially the lack of warmth and understanding she received from clinicians. So when Greelish next developed cancer in her right breast, in 2018, her jewelry business partner Peck insisted she switch her care to Dana-Farber Brigham.
Treats and tears
Right away, Greelish noticed the difference.
“When I was going through radiation, Neil Gilbert and Bertha Taylor were so caring and helpful to everyone, like an island of calm in a seat of turbulence,” says Greelish. “And when my cat got cancer too, and I had to put her down, my nurse Kathryn ‘Kitty’ Hooper was so thoughtful and understanding.”
Greelish also felt a close connection to her fellow patients.
“The waiting room in the radiation suite became a kind of social club, where we all talked about how we were doing,” Greelish recalls. “I started giving out little packages of my candied ginger with toasted sesame seeds, and it was a nice feeling to hear they liked them and that they were good for them in so many ways.”
One day, a woman Greelish had already given a package to asked her to make more ginger that she could sell in her store. Others also suggested Greelish could make a business selling it.
“It got me thinking. I’m 61, and I’ve had cancer three times. I have always wanted to make something as good as this, and if I’m going to do it, what am I waiting for?” Greelish says. “So I called and said to Laurie, ‘It’s time to diversify. Maybe we could, in some small way, help other cancer patients.’”
Peck wasn’t surprised.
“Susanne is very pragmatic, resilient, and knows how to self-advocate for what she needs,” says Peck, who now works at Dana-Farber. “Most of all, she is incredibly creative and can often see a path forward that others can’t.”
Now, Greelish’s treats are available in four flavors at several retail locations, and she is continuing to receive — and pass on — the care and closeness she thrives on.
“A woman recently came up to me and wanted to thank me because she was having breast cancer treatment at Dana-Farber, her husband had gotten her some of my treats, and they had really helped her,” Greelish shares. “The tears welled up in my eyes.”