Vartabedian: A Woman’s Crusade Against Breast Cancer

ANDOVER, Mass.—Susan Kulungian smiles coyly when people call her “the mad hatter.”

One day, she comes dressed as a pirate with a patch over her eye and the next day a chef with an armful of groceries. The hats are worn to match the outfit. A baseball cap comes on when she cheers for her favorite team—and there are days when there’s a bandana. Or no hat at all.

Kulungian as chef personified wearing one of her cancer hats.
Kulungian as chef personified wearing one of her cancer hats.

That’s when the real Susan Kulungian steps forward—a stay-at-home mom with two children fighting breast cancer. One look at Kulungian with her hats and you’d never know the 45-year-old was fighting the dreaded disease. According to the American Cancer Society, one out of eight women is afflicted in America.

“By bringing a smile to others, I find it’s the best medicine for me,” she says. “A good sense of humor often works wonders. There are others out there who might have the same thing and could use a quick pickup. I want to show people that you can overcome obstacles with a positive attitude.”

Check out Susan’s blog and it becomes instant therapy. She’s got a section titled “The many hats you wear when you’re bald” and another updating readers on her radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

“A piece called “Hair today, gone tomorrow,” details her reaction to the treatments.

The balding look is often seen in church on Sundays when Susan attends with husband John, who chairs the Board of Trustees, and their two children, Tori, 15, and Nick, 12. The family support has been huge ever since Susan was diagnosed in January.

“I got the news right after Armenian Christmas,” she recalled. “I was in a store buying crafts when my cell phone rang. It was my oncologist telling me the cancer was positive. I froze in place and became disoriented.”

Susan stormed out of the store as tears welled in her eyes. She got in her car and broke the news to her husband at work. The children were informed later that afternoon.

Kulungian lights a candle at St. Gregory Church of North Andover for all those afflicted with breast cancer.
Kulungian lights a candle at St. Gregory Church of North Andover for all those afflicted with breast cancer.

“It’s a very scary moment with young children,” she confessed. “We leaned on one another and prayed for the best.”

Kulungian underwent a lumpectomy to have the cancerous tumor removed—one day after the community lost its beloved pastor, Der Vartan Kassabian. For Susan, it was a “double whammy.”

“His death was traumatic,” said Kulungian. “I was thinking he’d be there for me. I found out he died on Facebook. Der Vartan called me every day after I was diagnosed and visited me often. Just hearing his voice was so uplifting. When he died, I gained an angel.”

Four weeks of recovery was followed by four rounds of chemo and another 33 rounds of radiation daily over a six and a half week period. Although the prognosis remains very good, there is a downside.

“There’s a very high recurrence rate for people with my type of cancer,” she pointed out. “All I can do is stay positive.”

And positive it’s been on every front. Nothing in her life has been compromised, least of all her family and her Armenian church community. She’s there at every call, attending picnics this summer at Camp Haiastan and helping with her own church picnic and bazaar.

She’ll approach some guy she knows and doffs her hat as both sport that balding look. “Look, Stepan,” she’ll quip. “You and I have something in common. Good heads think—and look—alike.”

And what about that tattoo she just received? It turns out to be the incision her surgeon made to make sure the right spot was being radiated.

“Maybe they can fashion it into a rose or a daisy,” she’ll muse. “I’ll ask.”

Susan joined up with a neighbor Lisa Corti to form a team that entered the Susan Komen Race for a Cure in Boston Sept. 26. She did the five kilometers and felt all the better for it. Over $3,000 was raised by her crew for breast cancer research.

“My support mechanism has been just great,” she confirms. “The children are dealing very well with it in their own way.”

Others who’ve gone through the same ordeal have been sources of inspiration to Kulungian while those at church have lent their physical and moral support. Two dear friends from Longmeadow had breast cancer and both are doing well.

A woman in church approached Susan and pointed to another group chatting. Three of the five were breast cancer survivors, including her.

“To have that touch you at a young age is scary,” says Kulungian. “It’s a woman’s worst fear. I have God on my side, my church, family and friends. That’s the fortunate side.”

Other hardships have pierced Susan’s life. She lost a brother Stephen at 29 and has a Dad with Alzheimer’s. Ara Shrestinian served as a deacon in the church before the disease struck him.

“My Mom [Virginia] has been a tower of strength through all this,” added Susan. “I have to stay strong so others around me won’t grow weak.”

The blog ( started in March as a way of keeping others informed and creating a bit of levity in her world, despite the difficult times.

In one report she wrote: “I got a call after my second treatment from my good friend Steve. He told me he had something to show me and wanted to drop by. When he got to the door and took off his baseball cap, I couldn’t believe it. He had shaved his head in ultimate support of me.”

She writes about the good days and the bad, the chemo treatments and people met along the way. She tells of life as it should be and the simple dialogue with her friends. There is sunshine in her blog—the gift of life.

“I laugh every day, mostly at myself,” Susan beams. “I’ll keep the blog going through Christmas. By then, I hope to be in remission.”

Her good friend Christine Kourkounian had pink breast cancer bracelets made for the clan. They belong to a group called the Armenian Desperate Housewives—a group of former AYFers from Merrimack Valley now married who enjoy a girls’ night out each month.

The chef’s hat often comes on when Susan takes to the kitchen to prepare her cookies. Sometimes she decorates them with a red, blue, and orange flag. She also enjoys perennial gardening, scrapbooking, crafts, and reading.

In her handbag was a Nicholas Sparks book, True Believer.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned through all this is to live each day to the fullest, be thankful for what you have, and not take life for granted,” Kulungian brought out. “Love the people you love. When I get down on myself, I simply refocus. The pity party is over.”

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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  1. Susan, you are an inspiration for all women, not just those with breast cancer! May God continue to give you and your family the strength and love to handle this difficult journey. May you conquer this with flying colors! Your prayer circle will also include me.

  2. Dear Tom,
    Another fine article bringing hope to those who may or may not suffer from a chronic or terminal illness. It is great to read these articles, and give others inspiration to never give up!!! As always the best prescription is a positive attitude. My prayers go out to Susan and her family. I would like to recommend a great book called “29 Gifts” for all your readers. It is an inspirational book.

  3. Dearest Susan,

    You are a hero for all…….may GOD BLESS and light your every day and your every wish… are in my prayers!

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