Passion for music helps Munhall woman beat cancer
In the grand plan she envisioned for her future, Susan Borowski never expected to be told 10 days before Christmas 2011 that she had breast cancer, or to mark her 50th birthday last May waiting for surgery to remove a tumor.
“Nobody ever thinks that they are going to get cancer until they are told they have cancer,” says Borowski of Munhall. “It was very scary. I was only 49 years old. I had already had thyroid cancer. I thought I would live to a ripe old age after that, but once again, I had cancer.”
She found solace and inspiration by stepping outside of the disease and focusing on something that made her happy: her music.
“It worked!” she says. “Music is very, very powerful. It has positive healing effects. I can attest to that. Playing music, coupled with conventional medicine and some of our best docs in Pittsburgh, cured me of cancer.”
Borowski, an administrative assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, is a respected Celtic musician and singer-songwriter. She will perform at St. Patrick's parade-day events March 16 in Pittsburgh.
After her diagnosis, Borowski continued to work and make beautiful music. She launched a solo career and recorded her first solo album, “In the Celtic Spirit,” during chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Music, she says, is as much a part of her as breathing. There is not a day that passes that she does not pick up a guitar or violin or hum a tune.
“If you have a gift or creative thing about you that makes you happy, you can use that to your physical and spiritual benefit,” Borowski says. “I kept busy by playing music and recording while the cancer treatments were killing the cancer.”
The day she was told she had breast cancer, she went home and played her violin to take her mind off of what she had just learned. “I knew from that moment on I had to keep playing music, no matter what, and I did,” she says.
“Anybody who has any kind of passion for something and continues to focus on that passion, it's easier for them to get through that treatment,” says Dr. Sushil Beriwal, her radiation oncologist and medical director of the department of radiation oncology at Magee Womens Hospital, Oakland. “She always had a smiling face, a calmness during treatments. You could not tell she was going through a stressful period.”
Borowski immersed herself in music, recording for five months into the wee hours in her home studio. “At the end of every night, I went to sleep with a smile on my face. I was so happy that I was able to accomplish something so beautiful,” she says.
After completing the solo debut, she forged ahead on a Christmas album.
“The songs she wrote, the music she played and producing two CDs that are really, really good, shows me her focus, energy, enthusiasm and talent,” says Diane Byrnes of Etna, host of “Echoes of Erin” on WEDO 810 AM. “I was amazed at the talent she possesses. Ah, it was hidden a bit (before she went solo), but no more!”
From day to day, Borowski never knew how her body would react to the chemo. There were days when she could not sing or stand.
At times, her soft and sweet vocals in the recording sessions gave way to the emotional and physical strain of the cancer treatments. Some listeners have commented on the raw emotion in her voice in “Back Home in Derry,” which is about prisoners longing for home.
“In Sue's case, she was longing for good health,” says her husband, James Borowski. “It is a powerful song.”
The name of her solo project, Steel Clover, was most fitting, he says. “That hardened steel determination, combined with the delicate and lovely clover, suits her perfectly.”
She completed her chemotherapy early so she was able to perform as a member of the RichPatrick trio at the Penn's Colony Festival last fall.
“She wanted to show other people who may have been given this diagnosis that they don't have to change their life, that they don't have to lock themselves in their bedrooms and draw the blinds for a year,” James Borowski says.
Celtic musician Matt Hughes of Carrick, who will perform with Borowski under the name Celtic Shores from 10 a.m. to noon March 16 in Market Square, is a big fan. ”She didn't beat cancer; she kicked it in the teeth! She has a spirit that refuses to yield,” he says.
Borowski first played with Hughes in Ar Eigean Gael when she began in the Celtic genre in 2007. She was featured on violin and mandolin on his first CD. “One October Night,” making it “100 times better,” Hughes says.
“She is a true inspiration to anyone who feels adversity has dealt them a losing hand,” says Bob Pegritz, formerly of West View, Borowski's good friend and a nationally touring Celtic musician who has had a long career in the medical field. “She is more than a musician. She becomes an immediate friend to all in her audience, singing from the heart and from her experiences in life.”
Medication that Borowski took during the cancer treatment caused her tongue and mouth to swell, and she became “puffy” from the steroids.
“I felt like the river was not enough water to drink. You are always thirsty and, as a result, your kidneys take a good beating, and you get very little sleep,” she says. “I used the power of positive thinking and envisioned myself at the end of my health journey, happy, smiling and cancer-free.”
After her follow-up mammogram and appointment in February, that is exactly where she finds herself.
”I am exactly where I want to be. I am cancer-free,” she says. “I am able to plot a course for my future right now. A year ago, I was not in this position. Anything can happen from this point on. I learned that living under a rock is not the way to live your life. You have to get out there and see what is right for you and do not allow anybody else to run your life. Take control!”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org