Breast cancer survivor lifts hearts

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Breast cancer survivor lifts hearts

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Pianist Suh Hai-kyung at her recent comeback concert following breast cancer surgery. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Sergei Rachmaninov survived depression to write Piano Concerto No. 2.
Suh Hai-kyung survived breast cancer to play the same piece, and she touched the hearts of everyone in the audience at the Seoul Arts Center on Jan. 22.
Suh seemed like she was in a trance during her performance. She didn’t stop even when her crystal earrings broke free and dropped to the floor.
When she opened her eyes after one and a half hours of playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and 3, she grabbed a mike and began a sentence that she couldn’t finish. “It’s been a little over three months since I completed radiation treatment for my...”
The audience understood and began applauding for the great performance and the courageous spirit of the 48-year-old pianist.
Her performance was as strong as ever, but there were a few signs that told how serious her bout with cancer was.
She kept rubbing her right arm while the orchestra took over, and stretched her arms backward.
That was a side effect of the breast cancer surgery she went through last April.
When her doctor told her she had breast cancer in October 2006, the first thing Suh thought of was not her health, but her piano.
“I spent most of my life at the piano, and I am just now getting better at understanding music and piano,” Suh said. “I cannot give up music.”
Although breast cancer is not fatal if the cancer is removed early enough, the diagnosis seemed fatal enough for the pianist.
Usually breast cancer surgery involves the removal of the entire breast, all of the lymph nodes under the arm, and the muscles and nerves of the arms, which would have been a death sentence for Suh because she would be unable to play the piano with her right hand.
She didn’t give up, though.
After visiting seven doctors and being told she should choose life over her piano career, she found hope in a doctor, Roh Dong-yeong, a professor at Seoul National University Medical School.
He performed the cancer surgery using state-of-the-art techniques which allow complete removal of the cancer while sparing the normal tissue.
After enduring surgery and 33 radioactive treatments, she returned to the stage last month at the Seoul Arts Center to play a piece that is tough even for a healthy pianist to complete. But Suh played two pieces from the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos.
“I wanted to let people know that I am fully alive,” she said.
She first intended to play three concertos but made a compromise with her doctor, who advised against a concert.
After the cancer, her life changed, Suh said.
“I’ve become a person who loves people and I understand the joy of singing,” she said.
“I treasure life more than ever and my stage phobia has turned into the excitement of being alive.”
She said her biggest fear now is a possible return of the illness.
She doesn’t eat any food containing flour and she tries to avoid stressful situations.
“I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, chilled by the fear of a recurrence of the cancer,” Suh said. “I just hope I can keep playing the piano. That’s my wish.”
Her performance at the January concert was heartfelt.
When she played Robert Schummann’s “Dreaming (Traumerei),” the audience called for an encore, and some wept.


By Kim Ho-jeong JoongAng Ilbo/ Lee Yang-kyoung Staff Reporter [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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