When Siteman Cancer Center patient Carolyn Schlueter was asked to compose a 35-second philosophy of life for her upcoming Ms. MO Senior America Pageant, she knew exactly what she wanted to say. A three-time cancer survivor, she’d had a lot of opportunities to reflect on what life meant to her.
“Life is a gift,” she wrote. “Embrace the moments, and enjoy the ride!”
Schlueter went on to win first runner-up at the pageant on July 14, after promenading around the stage, playing a series of popular tunes on the piano, and reciting her philosophy of life for the audience. But for Schlueter, who had never competed in a pageant before, the victory was about far more than a sash and a trophy: it was a reward for getting through her cancer treatments, and a celebration of her restored good health.
A petite, vivacious woman, Schlueter has always been one to make the most of every day. Born in Freeburg, Ill., she attended secretarial school after high school and soon landed a job at Anheuser-Busch, where she advanced to the position of executive secretary for president and CEO Gussie Busch, Jr. Schlueter worked for Busch until his retirement, spending nine hours a day down at the brewery. She enjoyed being served breakfast and lunch every day by a butler with a linen napkin draped over his arm.
After leaving Anheuser-Busch, she held a number of administrative roles, eventually ending her career as a medical proofreader.
“I couldn’t pronounce the words, but I knew how to hyphenate them,” she said.
Following her retirement in 2002, Schlueter has dedicated herself to a remarkable number of hobbies, including playing the piano at local retirement homes and painting with watercolors.
“I keep busy all the time,” she said. “Sometimes, too busy, but I enjoy everything I do.”
Her chief passion, however, is photography. She started taking classes several years ago and soon joined the St. Louis Camera Club, eager to develop her skills as much as she could. Today, her photographs regularly win prizes in local competitions.
The first cancer diagnosis came almost by accident. In 2015, after a long bout of pneumonia, she was instructed to get an X-ray of her lungs. By chance, the X-ray captured a mass on one of her kidneys, which was eventually diagnosed as encapsulated kidney cancer.
Schlueter shared her diagnosis with other members of the St. Louis Camera Club. One member, a retired physician from Barnes-Jewish Hospital, strongly recommended that she receive treatment at Siteman Cancer Center. She took his advice, and soon had the small tumor removed through laparoscopic surgery performed by Washington University urologic surgeon R. Sherburne Figenshau, MD.
But Schlueter’s encounter with cancer wasn’t over. The next year, in 2016, some troubling abdominal symptoms sent her back to the doctor. A colonoscopy revealed that she had colorectal cancer.
This time, she was treated by a multi-disciplinary team of Siteman physicians. Schlueter underwent five days of high-dose radiation therapy at Siteman’s west St. Louis County facility, but went to the St. Peters facility, near her home, for 25 sessions of chemotherapy under the supervision of Washington University medical oncologist Caron Rigden, MD. Finally, Washington University colorectal surgeon Matthew Mutch, MD, removed the tumor. She now wears an ostomy bag due to the nature of the operation.
Even after Schlueter’s radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, the cancer still wasn’t completely gone. A follow-up scan showed that it had metastasized to the lower lobe of her left lung. Schlueter underwent another round of chemotherapy, as well as a procedure to remove the cancerous lobe, this time with Washington University thoracic surgeon Varun Puri, MD, at Christian Hospital. Since then, she has been cancer-free.
The treatments were challenging, but Schlueter found ways to cope.
“I have a positive attitude about things, and I attribute that and my faith in God to getting through it,” she said.
Schlueter says she focused on how much her treatments were helping her, even the ostomy.
“I love my ostomy!” she said, with genuine enthusiasm. “You don’t have to take laxatives, and it’s very convenient.”
Schleuter says she’s grateful to Bonnie Johnston, RN, the nurse who trained her to use it, for helping her to recognize how valuable it was.
Schlueter found that Siteman, in addition to offering top-of-the line care, fostered an encouraging environment that was conducive to healing, both during and after treatment.
“I never had a negative moment. Everyone was so friendly and couldn’t do enough for you,” she said, remembering how the staff worked to keep patients comfortable during their treatments with warm blankets and cookies.
She says she especially appreciated visits from the therapy dogs. A committed dog lover who used to raise cocker spaniels for show, Schlueter recalled that, “Just seeing the dogs come in put a smile on my face and in my heart.”
Siteman patients are eligible for support services for five years following the completion of their treatments, and Schlueter credits this policy with contributing to her long-term recovery. She regularly receives massage treatments from Peggy, her Siteman massage therapist, and participates in a regular yoga class at the St. Peters facility.
Schlueter rode this wave of support and positivity into the Ms. MO pageant. She was encouraged to enter by her friend, Virginia, who had competed herself at the age of 102.
“She said to me, ‘Carolyn, you need to get into that pageant! You’re a winner! I just know it,’” Schlueter said.
Competing in the pageant brought its own array of challenges, but they seemed inconsequential after the challenges posed by cancer. Schlueter had to perform a choreographed dance with the rest of the contestants and navigate the stage in an evening gown and high heels, which she hadn’t worn in years. She was upfront about her background as a cancer patient in her official pageant bio and found that it resonated with the audience: the crowd started applauding when the emcee, introducing her, announced that she was a three-time survivor. When she went on to recite her philosophy of life, people knew she meant it when she said, “Every day is a gift.”
Schlueter was delighted to win first runner-up and has no plans to compete again.
“My life is full and happy right now,” she said. “There are so many responsibilities with being queen – I think I got the best spot!”
Soon after the pageant, Schlueter brought her sash and trophy to show the staff and patients at Siteman’s location in St. Peters. She wanted to share her good news with the people who had made it possible, and to demonstrate that life can continue after cancer.
“Keep a positive attitude, have faith, and take it one day at a time,” she said.