Whatever happened to: The judge who took on cancer

By John Barry, Times staff writer
Published December 16, 2007

"In her own defense," Dec. 17, 2006;see past coverage at life.tampabay.com.

THE STORY: Two years ago this month, Judge Susan Schaeffer, 65, retired from the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court to try to save her own life. She had small-cell lung cancer, among the deadliest of diseases. Half of those who get it die within six months.

A former defense lawyer, Schaeffer attacked her cancer as she would a death penalty case. Her goal was a stay of execution. She researched experimental treatments, bore up under simultaneous chemo and radiation therapies, demanded from her doctors any treatment that might raise her survival odds by a percentage point.

FROM THE STORY: Schaeffer went into remission in December 2004. But she was still searching for more therapy on the Internet. She researched the cranial radiation she would finish up with to prevent any lingering cancer cells from invading the brain. On the Web she found a clinical trial that showed "faster, more furious" doses of radiation had statistically higher odds of success.

The radiologist warned that she could suffer memory loss - similar to early Alzheimer's. "I'm not going back to the bench," she said. "Give it to me anyway."

Until that point, she had said little publicly about her treatments. Now she was among the 50 percent of lung cancer patients still alive after six months. She was ready to party.

She announced her retirement. Her colleagues wanted to throw a testimonial dinner. That sounded too much like a "maudlin retirement dinner" or, worse, a wake. She nixed all testimonials, demanded a roast.

She showed up bald-headed.

THE REST OF THE STORY: For the past two years, Schaeffer has received CT scans every three months. Only 15 percent of patients with small-cell lung cancer survive two years. Those who do are likely to remain cancer free.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Schaeffer sent an e-mail to family and friends after her PET/CT scan on Nov. 16.

"The result of the scan was the best news I could have gotten - I am absolutely cancer free. Due to the time from diagnosis to present, I will now have to have PET/CT scans only once every six months. Further, I will need blood work only once every 6 weeks.

"I am so thankful for all my blessings, including having family and friends who have meant so much to me as I fought, and will continue to fight this devastating disease. . . .

"As we enter the twilight of our years, I believe we appreciate our friends so much more. . . Enjoy your family and your friends. Tell them how important they are to you and how much you love them. God has been good to me. So have my family and friends. I am so grateful and so blessed."