An eternal optimist

May 14, 2021


By Cheyenne Varner, '13

Reflecting on her career, Dr. Susan Schaffer’s thoughts range from sadness and tragedy to happiness and cure.

“I have seen many new drugs and therapies over my 20 years,” said Schaffer, W’88. “Medical oncology is a complicated field now with immunotherapy and targeted therapies along with traditional chemo. In this highly sophisticated environment, I always try to focus on the good and positive parts of any situation.”

Schaffer has been a medical oncologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond for 15 years, largely treating patients with breast cancer and brain tumors. She’s had a unique approach to medicine since she was a Westhampton student double-majoring in religion and biology. This double major was “the best blend of training” she said. She’s known for how well she handles difficult conversations with her patients and their families.

“I am an eternal optimist that is a practical realist, so I balance these two things every day,” she said. “There’s always hope … and there is reality, which is you may have thought you were going to live 20 years and now you are going to live less than a year.”

She has incorporated a more holistic approach in recent years because of the many patients who began asking about diet, nutrition, supplements, and complementary therapies. To find the answers, she completed a two-year fellowship in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. When she returned, she expanded the offerings at the cancer center to include massage, yoga, meditation, and an on-site nutritionist.

“It’s not just, ‘Here is your drug therapy,’ but rather, ‘How can we help, and how can we take care of your mind and body?’” she said. “I’m proud of this integrative way of practicing medicine.”