New Zealand Law Society - I refused to let cancer win: One mature student’s brave battle to defy death and pursue her dream

I refused to let cancer win: One mature student’s brave battle to defy death and pursue her dream

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Sue Scutter
Sue Scutter

At some point we all wake up in our 40s, reassess our lives and decide whether we want more of the same, or something completely different.

Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger once said he wouldn’t be singing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction at 40, but he did and continues to in his 70s.

Sue Scutter, who turns 50 this year, didn’t want to be gathering more of the same moss and, at 42, the former florist embarked on a complete change of career. She went to law school at Victoria University.

“People are usually referred to as mature students from their late 20s, I’m not sure what I’d have been called but I certainly wasn’t the oldest law student in my class,” she says.

While she thought law school would be the biggest challenge she would ever face, it wasn’t, by a long way. It was overcoming a life-threatening cancer while studying for her Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

Cancer turned a four-year double degree into an almost seven-year academic ordeal.

“I’m not a quitter, I never give up, and I refused to let cancer win,” she says.

And it pays to have a good dose of determination, considering that, in her first year of law school, there were 1100 students but only 300 places available for second year law, so gaining the B+ average wasn’t something she could afford to slacken off on.

Worldly experience kept her feet on the ground

Having had a busy life before law school, with two grown-up children and husband number two, did mean the stress was a little more bearable.

“Some of the younger students took the pressure really hard. They were in tears and some told me they were on antidepressants. I think, for me, a bit of worldly experience did me a lot of good by keeping me calm,” she says.

She describes studying law as being on a rollercoaster in that one minute you feel like you’re rising to the top and then wham, you’re back at the bottom learning something new again.

And clawing her way back to the top was a big part of the story for Sue Scutter.

Before taking up law, she lived in Bulls near Palmerston North, where she owned and operated a florist business for 16 years.

After her marriage broke down, she and her two children eventually moved to the Kapiti Coast after meeting her second husband, who had an accounting business where she became office manager.

Blooming in the legal field

It was in Bulls, however, that Mrs Scutter first became involved in law, working as a Justice of the Peace. And, on the Coast she became involved in the Wellington JP Association panel.

“I loved it. I liked doing the research, reading case law,” she says.

It was a JP colleague that convinced her to consider studying law, though she was initially reluctant. “I thought I was way too old, and that law would be too hard and probably too boringly black and white,” she says.

Despite her doubts she began a bachelor of laws and criminology conjoint degree.

“I loved criminology and law … it’s everything but black and white. It’s so open to interpretation. The first few months at university were really tough, a lot of tears and tantrums when I got home at night,” she says.

There were many changes to adapt to, such as taking the train into the city daily and maintaining being a mum, but the constant and untiring support from her husband John kept her sane.

The areas of law that really fascinated her were criminal law and youth justice.

“Three years into my degree, I started working part-time for Criminal Barrister Noel Sainsbury, who is now a District Court Judge.

“I was doing that job, studying full-time, was President of the Wellington JP Association and juggling family life with my daughter at school, son at university and husband working, and he too was also doing some study part time.”

On the surface everything was going well, the new routine was manageable and she was getting closer to gaining her law degree.

The fight for life and law

But in 2014, her life changed completely. The tiredness she thought was due to the culmination of three years study was something else.

“I awoke one morning, took a shower and discovered a huge lump for the first time. I only had one year left of study. I saw a doctor thinking it was everything but cancer because it had happened so fast. It was sore and I couldn’t move my arm, but within about 10 days the diagnosis was that I had a really aggressive form of breast cancer,” she says.

Initially, she planned to continue her studies but her oncologist had other ideas.

“I spent that Christmas getting a series of tests and I asked her if I could carry on with my final three law papers and two Bachelor of Arts papers … absolutely not, she told me.

“She said, you’ve got really aggressive cancer and I’m going to give you really aggressive treatment, and there is no way you can study.”

She underwent six months of intensive chemotherapy.

“I was told there was a 50% chance that it wouldn’t help so we focussed on the 50% chance that it would cure me.

“I felt like I was going to die sometimes and I was admitted to hospital several times. My husband John, whenever I felt really low, would remind me that it was the treatment making me sick, not the cancer, and that kept me going,” she says.

Severe treatment

“I wanted to live. When I was first diagnosed it was thought that I had it in my bones. I had put the pain down to my arthritis but my specialist told me that might not be the case as the cancer was in my lymph nodes. That was the worst day of my life. I just wanted to be old, to live to be old. I’d only been married for just over seven years and I felt like I’d had a second chance at life and this (cancer) was not going to stop me from being old with John and my children,” she says.

Sue Scutter would have chemotherapy every Wednesday, and from the following morning the nausea and reaction to the brutal treatment would last for days until a small window of respite came about 24 hours before her next session.

But, despite the severity of the treatment, it was working and the cancer tumour was shrinking.

She says the chemotherapy included steroids which affected her sleeping patterns. The treatment also included a mastectomy, having her lymph nodes removed and daily radiation for a period of five weeks. The radiation was to ensure that once surgeons had removed the cancer, no cells could cause it to make a comeback.

“That meant my skin was burnt in places and I now have nerve damage which can be painful and I have daily medication to manage this along with some physiotherapy,” she says.

So, it has been a case of small steps towards a full recovery.

Mrs Scutter had been in the middle of studying media law and the Treaty of Waitangi during summer school before she was sidelined by the illness at the end of 2014.

“I managed to get aegrotat passes because I had done well in the internal assessments and I just wasn’t well enough to sit the exams.”

That final law paper, Insurance law, still needed to be completed and she was determined to get there and gain her Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

“It was back to summer school at the end of 2015. I was probably still too sick but my lecturer was incredibly kind and would record lectures for me, if I was struggling to attend,” she says.

It seemed like the finish line was near but life had one more hoop to jump.

“I got sick again, an air pocket under a lung which was totally random and I contracted Peritonitis, which is inflammation of tissue covering most internal organs. It was life-threatening and I had to have emergency surgery,” she says.

Mrs Scutter asked the medical professionals if she would be able to finish her two university papers while she dealt with her latest health crisis.

“The answer again was no. I struggled to get well as there were complications but now I feel pretty good. I completed two summer school papers at the end of 2016 and finally finished university,” she says.

She also began her ‘Profs’ and did the bulk of it online, completing that final chapter of her law degree.

Sue Scutter was admitted just before Christmas last year.

Success and a new job

Mrs Scutter never considered tossing in her dream of a conjoint law and criminology degree.

“I thought that if I did, I would be letting the cancer win and even though I was really sick and would come home from university wrecked I just had to finish what I started and I wanted my law degree before I turned 50,” she says.

Her tenacity and determination paid off when she landed work at Integra Law on the Kapiti Coast.

“I decided that, rather than take on the stress of criminal law which was what I really wanted, before I became sick, that maybe a more GP law role would suit me better, so doing a bit of everything.

“Integra Law offered me 20 hours a week which will progress to more and this is good because it’ll take time for me to get back up to speed in the workforce. I have what medical professionals call ‘chemo brain’ where, because of the treatment for cancer, my memory isn’t as sharp and I get tired easily, but that’ll improve in time,” she says.

So, perhaps the saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ is true and the personal battle Sue Scutter took on and won to get her law degree will no doubt add to her legal skill set she’ll use as a practising lawyer.

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