Cancer victim won’t let pain spoil fun

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 15, 2008

For 25 years, Susie Payne has held her annual Christmas cookie and ornament exchange, and she’s not about to let chemotherapy, pain or the side effects of drug treatment spoil her party.

Twelve years ago, Payne was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought it for years with surgery and drugs and went into remission, but was recently found to have new tumors in her upper spine, for which she’s undergoing treatment and wearing a neck brace.

This year’s party is set for today.

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“I’ve had my moments when I’ve gone out into the back-yard, done my loud crying, but I don’t have time for that,” Payne said in an interview in her kitchen.

Payne leads a busy life, teaching art fulltime at Beechwood Elementary School, working on her own painting projects, scrapbooking and tending to her family.

Just after Christmas she will celebrate her 33rd wedding anniversary with husband Barry, an environmental biologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering Research and Development Center. They have two sons, one of whom lives at home.

Rolling spoonfuls of cookie dough into balls for baking, she said, “If you let yourself, you can roll into a ball and not be good for anything. I thought about what I’d do if somebody told me I only had 10 days to live, and what I’d want is just to enjoy my life.”

Payne’s home reflects many of the things that keep her doing just that. She collects Roman’s seraphim angels, displayed in a glass case just inside her front door, and has accumulated many pieces of pottery, from small to large bowls, plates and platters.

Books about famous artists are shelved at one end of the family room and a weaving loom stands at the other. On the counter opening to the kitchen, she’s displayed many of the hundreds of wooden eggs she has designed and painted, including a manger scene with shepherds, angels, kings and animals.

“When I made the manger scene I started with just Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Payne said. “Then someone wanted to know where the Wise Men were. So I told them, well, they had to follow the star and it took them a while to get there.”

The first egg she made years ago was a Santa Claus, with moveable arms and legs fastened with small eye screws.

“To be in that house at Christmas time is like walking through a wonderland,” said close friend Chris Patin, one of the original cookie swap ladies who has been to most of the parties.

“We have a core group of about six who have been involved pretty much from the beginning,” Payne said. “It’s a good way to get to know people.”

Over the years the invitation list has grown and may top 30 today.

Each woman will bring 12 dozen homemade cookies and an ornament for the Dirty Santa gift game in which turns are taken opening presents and guests have the option of claiming them from each other. During the evening, they’ll sample some of the cookies, play a game or two, visit and later take home dozens of cookies made by other women at the party.

Several traditions have developed, including the pralines one woman brings every year, the punch Payne always makes and the stories that have grown up around the ornament swap where a gift can change hands fast.

For the first few years, the dirty Santa game was not much fun, Payne said. “These nice Southern belles wouldn’t steal from each other!” With a little prompting from her, they got over that. Now the women are on the lookout all year long for the unique, handmade ornaments from all over the country that make for a good, cutthroat evening of trying to go home with the choicest ornament.

Payne will also give out prizes and send each guest home with a handmade ornament she’s created.

Payne was a stay-at-home mother when her two boys were young. She said she spent almost as much time at their schools as she does now as a full-time teacher, volunteering in the classroom, making crafts and painting the wooden eggs she’s known for perhaps even more than her cookie exchanges. Some people even call her “the egg lady.”

Teaching is demanding, but Payne loves it. “It’s fun with those kids. There are a lot who don’t have access to that kind of activity, and they like to hear about the artists.”

She also appreciates another way to stay busy.

You don’t have time to think about your problems when you teach. The kids take your mind off it.”

Payne was just getting into the current school year when she found that the cancer had recurred, invading her upper spine. Despite pain and fatigue, she’s able to say she’s lucky. If the tumors that weakened her spine had grown slightly differently, she might be paralyzed now.

“I was in the lowest possible risk for developing breast cancer,” she added. “But it happens. Don’t think that it can’t, because it can. I always  exercised a lot and tried to live a healthy life. And even though I did get cancer, I think that’s helped.”

Patin said she thinks of Payne whenever she hears the Martina McBride song “I Hope You Dance.” “Susie always chooses to dance.”

Five years ago, during a recurrence of breast cancer, one of Payne’s friends thought the cookie exchange might have to be canceled. “No, I told her. Life goes on. We’re having the cookie swap and nothing is going to change it.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at