Songs from a Lead-Lined Room: Notes–High and Low–from My Journey through Breast Cancer and Radiation

Songs from a Lead-Lined Room is a memoir rooted in truth and raw experience, with a sure and compelling voice. The lead-lined room is the radiation therapy unit where Suzanne was treated for breast cancer and is one of the settings of this diary she kept over those six and a half weeks, sharing her despair, confusion, and fear as well as the compassion and caring of her friends, her husband, and her fellow patients.



By Whitney Scott
May 1, 2002
Shea starts with a song of herself: at 41, she had never never smoked, walked daily in all weather, hadn’t eaten meat in a decade, and drank very little. She attended church, recycled, gave to charities, and had regular mammograms. In short, she was in the best shape, physically, she ever had been in. So she thought. Then, a diagnosis of breast cancer. Because of milk, she wonders, or high-tension wires, or pesticides? What with early detection, her prognosis is good. She gives us a flashback-filled diary, the account of a month-and-a-half of postlumpectomy radiation treatments administered in a lead-lined room, which she initially meant to burn after sharing only with intimates. With no lymph nodes invaded, no chemotherapy was required. Still, though painless, the weeks of daily 10-minute procedures, five days a week, brought on self-isolation and fatigue in a limbo-like state, despite her relatively easy regular life as a stay-at-home writer. Shea’s journey to understanding and appreciating her overall good fortune is a self-revelation that other affected by breast cancer will value.

© Copyright Booklist.

Library Journal

By Bette-Lee Fox
April 1, 2002
Successful novelist Shea (Hoopi Shoopi Donna, LJ 4/15/96) was 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. Here, she offers an eloquent evocation of the breast cancer experience and mindset. Her surgery went well, with no lymph node involvement, so she faced radiation therapy. As Shea acknowledges, she isn’t a good patient, but her description of the mechanics as well as the “psychology” of radiation, presented in diary-like chapter, will inform and help others going through the ordeal. And an ordeal it is, over six weeks, five days a week, enduring the fatigue and the skin irritation, only to be told by one well-intentioned acquaintance, “But it’s not like you had chemotherapy. Now that would be something to complain about.” Jamie Bernard’s Breast Cancer, There & Back (LJ 9/1/01) provides more detail of the process of radiation therapy, but Shea’s prose captures the reader and makes you root for her with all your heart. “If I have to have cancer, have it tip my life over as it has, I want some kind of prize at the end,” she says. We are the prize winners, with this glorious book as our reward. Highly recommended.

© Copyright Library Journal.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Novelist’s cancer tale breaks positive-patient mold

By Lucia Herndon, Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist
July 3, 2002

Novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea likes inventing scenarios for her characters. The protagonists in her four novels have faced – with signature humor – hardships ranging from failed romances to lost dreams. But Shea’s newest book is a departure from the novels. In Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, Shea plays the leading role, not in a novel but in a true-life account of her bout with breast cancer.She was 41, in great physical shape, had a great marriage, and had made the jump from newspaper reporter to successful novelist. She was working on her fifth book and enjoying her self-described “good life, a life I was really grateful for,” when the cancer diagnosis came in 1999.

Gone was the gratitude, replaced with fear and resentment. When doctors told her she wouldn’t need chemotherapy after surgery, but would face seven weeks of daily radiation treatments, she went looking for information about radiation. And couldn’t find much.

“Computer searches turned up things about Chernobyl,” she said. After her first session in the lead-lined room, Shea went straight home to her computer. She couldn’t even talk to her husband until she had written about the experience. It was the beginning of her journal entries written after each treatment.

“I didn’t know this would be a book,” said Shea, 43, who lives in the western Massachusetts town of Bondsville. “I wrote as a form of therapy for myself. I thought it would make a great bonfire after I was finished.” But when she showed pieces of her work to her husband, Tommy Shea, and a few close friends, they encouraged her to find a publisher and share her journey with others.

But you’d be selling the book short if you stuck it under the “cancer” file. The book is a study in how a person responds to adversity and offers the same quirky humor found in her novels Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, and Around Again.

Shea writes that in the past she had thought that, if she were ever stricken with a dread disease, her general upbeat, faith-filled manner would have her not only looking good in her hospital bed, but feeling good, too.

“I’d try to make others feel positive as well, reassuring them that I’d be fine soon, quoting inspirational verses, setting records in learning how to talk or walk or whatever was my lost ability,” she writes.

But when it actually happened, Shea reacted differently. “After she got bashed in the knee and lay crumpled there on the walkway just off the ice rink, crying ‘Why me, Why me,’ lots of people were making fun of Nancy Kerrigan. Now I know, you get bashed out of nowhere, that’s what you wail.”

The cancer diagnosis knocked her out of the loop for a year. Or, as Shea said, “I spent a year falling into a hole and another year climbing out of it.”

She distanced herself from helpful friends and relatives, going so far as to put a “Go Away” mat at the door of her house. Even her husband got the cold treatment. She responded to his attack of kidney stones by having dinner while he underwent surgery.

The book chronicles her climb out and eventual return to the land of the living, with a renewed sense of life and all its sweetness and randomness. “I could have called this book Suzanne Gets Her Gratitude Back,” Shea says, laughing. “I came to realize how lucky I am. That I had cancer and have endured the treatment and am still here. I hope the book encourages people to find their own way of coping.”

© Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer.


By Joan Barberich
I just finished Suzanne Strempek Shea’s first book-length work of non-fiction, and her writing is direct, canny, clear. It’s a weighty, serious book about breast cancer, but her individual perceptions of life make you laugh sometimes. She writes like the bullets she hates so much in the gun of the hunter she sees on her nature walks: precise, penetrating, no-nonsense. She shares in these diary-like excerpts exactly what it was like to receive a cancer diagnosis and experience radiation day after day for months, her skin getting more and more burned from it, how her life changed from it, how she was always worrying about dying and many other things. Suzanne Strempek Shea’s new book gradually brings you through a process that not many people expose to the air or the public: the process of learning to live with one’s own death – and the discomfort and anguish of being alive but knowing, more clearly than you’ve ever known, that you will someday die. The extreme vulnerability in this exposure makes the volume as a whole so strong that you come away with a deep, valuable understanding of what the struggle against a life-threatening disease can really be like.

© Copyright Booksense.

Cure magazine

By Kathy Latour
So How would an award-winning fiction writer tell her breast cancer story? To find out, pick up a copy of Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book. Good writing is good writing, no matter the topic, and for those of us in the cancer community, Shea’s exploration of radiation and the experiences and people she met are better than any fiction – and as most of us know, a lot stranger and more intense. I like this book for the intensity just as much as I like Wendy Burton’s for its whimsy.

© Copyright Cure magazine.

Improper Bostonian

Survivor From the Island of Illness

By Mopsy Strange Kennedy
August 7-20, 2002

“More mammograms in a single day than there are M’s in the word,” is one way that Suzanne Strempek Shea describes the process that led to the discovery of her cancer. Happy with her life, married and a novelist at 40 years old, she suddenly finds herself inducted into a club that truly no one wants to join. Still, she manages to maintain her journal-keeping habits at the hospital. As chronicled in those pages, Shea finds it dismissive when well-wishers note that “only” radiation is needed.The tendency to make constant evaluations of one’s relative lot is one of the sobering symptoms of cancer, and Shea finds herself making comparisons between the past, present and the never-again-innocent future; between herself and her fellow johnny-wearers in the clinic; between the (lucky) healthy and the (unlucky) fellow ill. She also shows how hard it is for cheering friends to hit the right note, cringing when people seem to start mourning her death upon hearing her news. She uses the tragedy of Molly Bish, the young teen lifeguard who disappeared from her post sometime during Shea’s treatment, as a sympathetic distraction and a metaphor of uncertainty. The shadow of sickness falls on everything, but some things are made more precious because of it.

© Copyright Improper Bostonian.

Breast Cancer Action Newsletter

By Lauren John
September/October 2002

“I keep noticing that I am the youngest person I see in any of these rooms. Something about that bothers me, like, maybe there has been some kind of mistake-I’m not supposed to be here, really.”Thus begins 43-year-old novelist and former journalist Suzanne Strempek Shea’s memoir of the period of her life spent, after a lumpectomy for stage I cancer, undergoing radiation treatments five days a week for six weeks in the lead lined sub-basement of the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The book, based on journal entries that Shea kept at the time, centers on her observations in the waiting and treatment rooms. But there are scenes from “the rest of life” as well, all tinged with her newly developed “cancer perspective.”

This new perspective makes it hard for her to listen as her husband repeatedly shares with friends and family a rather macho account of his emergency kidney stone operation that year, a surgery in which the doctor claims to have removed the biggest stones he had ever seen in his career. But it is also a mind-set that motivates her to take time out despite fatigue to visit an apple orchard with her husband for the first time, savoring apple pie and fall foliage.

Perhaps because the book started as a journal, and certainly because the author is a good storyteller with a clean and honest style, I often felt as if I were reading the diary of a good friend. Of course, given that she has a thriving literary career, a flexible schedule, supportive friends and family, and health insurance-not to mention a primary care doc who puts other patients and the pharmacist on extended hold to chat with her during office visits-this is one friend who could make you really jealous.

Still, Shea is aware of her privileges and acknowledges the challenges faced by other women, including Luz, a Latina woman who sits opposite her in the waiting room each day and worries that by taking time off for treatment she could lose her job. Luz is 50 years old, with three kids and one grandchild, all of whom live with her. “It could be worse,” Shea reassures herself, “and here it is in front of me in 3-D full-color Kleenex-plucking life.”

There are some germinating kernels of activism in the text, enough to make Shea (like journalist Barbara Ehrenreich before her) one of BCA’s honorary “bad girls” of breast cancer. Consider her take on Breast Cancer Awareness Month: she laments that most of the women’s magazine coverage “was devoid of information or simply was feel-good material that skirted reality.” More specifically, Shea writes, there were accomplishments including adopting a child, starting up an outdoor-adventure company, learning to speak French, and noticing the grass growing. All good and admirable, but I found it horribly off-putting. I searched the pages for the boxes that began with, “I had breast cancer and then I fell off the edge of the earth and was hanging on by, like, one hand, then four fingers, then three, then two, then one, having tons of people who wanted to help but still feeling that alone, that freaked out, that misunderstood, and then I had surgery and treatments and needed to think for a thousand days, but now…” Then-only then-could come the new career as a gluten-free restaurant chef or the life as a foster parent for at-risk teens from a dozen third-world countries. Let’s have some acknowledgement of the middle part of the process. Please.”

Shea also describes her mixed feelings about the abundance of fliers and pamphlets advertising self-help classes for breast cancer patients in everything from alternative medicine to exercise to cooking. Like a student reviewing extracurricular activities at college orientation, she is glad they are available but intimidated by their scope and variety.

Although here (as is often the case) suffering has led to great artistic expression, it is interesting to consider recent reports on brachytherapy, a prospective new form of radiation treatment in which a balloon catheter inserts radioactive “seeds” into the breast after a tumor is removed. The experimental treatment delivers a concentrated dose of radiation directly to the site where cancer is most likely to recur, a process lasting (gasp) only five days for women with early stage breast cancer.

Regardless of whether this new form of treatment proves successful, there are still many women who have experienced or will experience the six-week radiation process, and they are likely to find comfort and kinship in Shea’s account. I would love to see groups of people discussing this book. I am not sure that there is broad enough appeal for a general book club, but certainly folks in breast cancer support groups could read and discuss it together.

© Copyright Breast Cancer Action Newsletter.


By John B. DiNuovo, President, Palmer Library Board of
Summer, 2002
I lose myself in thought as I place one foot in front of the other. My brain, which traveled this same route when my best friend Bob and I ran to get in shape for track season, is trying to block messages from my 55-year-old feet and back. Most of those messages question my sanity. Do you know what time it is? I know I have to take the time if I’m going to lose that last 10 lbs. Time? There’s no stopping it. It just keeps flowing like a river to the sea. It carries all our lives to some unknown place mixing our lives with others. Sharing our hopes, our love and our tragedies. I attended a book signing on Friday, May 10, partly because it was hosted by the Palmer Public Library but mostly to celebrate the author. To celebrate not her life as an author but the extension of her life and her battle with cancer. She was given the gift of having more time to write, to laugh, to walk, and to kayak on her favorite river. She used some of that time to relate her experiences in a book. A book whose invention wasn’t to turn a profit but to fill a void in the cancer literature which would explain her feelings and help others and their families cope in a time in their lives when time is all you can think about. I sat in a crowded room and listened to the questions and Suzanne’s heartfelt straightforward answers. We as a community had gotten together to express our support and she in turn helped us to understand, to be more proactive with our own health not only for ourselves but also for our family and community. So I tell my feet I know it’s five o’clock, but I have the time.

© Copyright Seasons.

Molly Bish

Mourning Molly Bish
Those who read “Songs From a Lead-Lined Room” will be familiar with the story of Molly Bish, the 16-year-old Warren, Mass., lifeguard who was abducted from her town’s beach on June 27, 2000. Remains located in the summer of 2003 in Palmer, Mass., were positively identified as being Molly’s. Her killer remains at large.
All sympathy and love to Molly’s family and friends, and gratitude to law officials and volunteers involved in the search.
To make a donation to the Molly Bish Foundation, through which her parents, Magdalen and John Bish, establish and provide safety awareness programs in schools and communities, visit
Also on the site are a suspect sketch and profile, and downloadable wanted poster. Those with any information regarding the disappearance of Molly should contact: Warren Police Department: 413-436-9595 or 800-808-9677; Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit: 508-832-9124/; or Worcester County District Attorney’s office: 508-755-8601.