Suzanne Mahon is a clinical nurse specialist whose areas of expertise include cancer risk assessment, hereditary cancer syndromes, and cancer prevention and early detection. She provides comprehensive cancer genetics education, counseling, support and follow-up to individuals and families with known hereditary risk for developing cancer. Mahon reviewed patient data at her office at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital on Jan. 13.
Suzanne Mahon is a clinical nurse specialist whose areas of expertise include cancer risk assessment, hereditary cancer syndromes, and cancer prevention and early detection. She provides comprehensive cancer genetics education, counseling, support and follow-up to individuals and families with known hereditary risk for developing cancer. Mahon reviewed patient data at her office at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital on Jan. 13.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Expert in genetics puts it to use in helping patients

Nurse relies on her faith for patience, empathy in working with families

Suzanne Mahon brings together the best of nursing science and genetic counseling to empower individuals and families to make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

Mahon
She relies on her Catholic faith — as well as her expertise in interpretation, management and test results — to do her job well in her clinical practice.

A professor in hematology and oncology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, Mahon was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, the nursing field’s highest honor, late last fall. Working in cancer prevention and early detection since 1988, she is one of less than a handful of nurses in Missouri to be certified in genetics.

Relying on God

It’s a privilege to take care of patients, Mahon said. She works with patients who are anxious and vulnerable, many newly diagnosed with cancer or have family members who have had a diagnosis or died from cancer, so they’re worried about their risk for developing it.

Patience and empathy are important in her work. “You have to walk in their shoes,” Mahon said. “I have to think about that every time I see a patient or make a call to talk to a patient.”

Often, before she sees or calls a patient she takes a minute to reflect to ensure she’s delivering potentially stressful information in a loving way. “I have to stop and say, ‘This is going to be difficult for the patient,’ put my best foot forward and ask God for the courage and the tools I need to the best job I can. People deserve that kind of care.”

Her role focuses on disease prevention. “If we work with a family and we find they have inherited risk for developing cancer, then we can look to design a set of recommendations that might help to prevent it,” Mahon said. “Those interventions come with a physical and emotional cost, but we can detect it earlier when it’s treatable. We have a responsibility to promote health, and I feel lucky I landed in a position to actually do that.”

If someone has a hereditary predisposition to developing cancer that’s verified with testing, “then we can recommend intensive screening or something else we wouldn’t otherwise recommend,” Mahon said. “It can be life-saving and life-changing. There are things you can do to decrease that risk. Genetic testing is a good use of health care dollars and helps us put the money where we most likely reap benefit. If your mother inherited risk for some cancer, and you didn’t inherit it, that’s relieving and you don’t have to do that extra screening.”

Catholic education

Outside of work, Mahon’s Catholic ties are strong as well. Her children attended St. Justin Martyr School and Cor Jesu Academy, the same schools she attended. “St. Justin Martyr is home for us. When my husband and I were looking for a home, we only looked inside the parish boundaries,” she related.

Cor Jesu was a good fit too. “I always say that was the best money we spent for our kids — on a Catholic education.”

Mahon was on the St. Justin School board after her children graduated, and she gives guest lectures at Cor Jesu Academy on topics related to her field and in the context of the Catholic faith. “I felt so strongly about the importance of Catholic education.”

Her three daughters followed in their mother’s footsteps. Her oldest daughter, Emily Tschopp, has a degree in musical therapy and is a graduate of SLU with a bachelor’s degree in the accelerated and master’s in nursing options. Tschopp works on the palliative care team at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and is an adjunct instructor in the SLU School of Nursing. Mahon’s middle daughter, Maureen Varty, received her undergraduate degree from SLU and recently completed her doctorate in nursing and is a nurse scientist at the University of Colorado Anschutz. Mahon’s youngest daughter, Elaine, graduated in 2018 and is a pediatric oncology nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Their mom and dad didn’t push them into the medical field, just wanting them to be happy, but their parents’ passion for their jobs obviously rubbed off. It makes for fun conversation when they get together and discuss their work, while Mahon’s sons-in-law stand by with puzzled looks.

Mahon’s education prepared her well for nursing school and her career. Social justice and health care ethics were a huge part of her education at Saint Louis University, where she obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees, “and that played a large part in steps I’ve taken,” she said.

She and her husband, a physician-gerontologist who also practices at SLU, both value the Catholic charism of taking care of patients of all economic means.

Mahon passes on her knowledge with clinical students and teaches a section of various courses in the SLU School of Nursing. She touts the importance of spiritual care for health care workers, especially now with the stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.


>> Accomplished nurse leader

Suzanne Mahon’s expertise was cited upon her induction as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. Mahon is a professor at Saint Louis University in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology.

Her clinical practice “focuses on advancing care in cancer genetics to patients and families. Her sustained clinical practice of more than 30 years demonstrates advance practice nurses can provide excellent comprehensive genomic care and counseling that ultimately decreases the morbidity and mortality associated with cancer,” the Academy reported.

Mahon has served on the Centers for Disease Control Task Force on Direct to Consumer Marking for Genetic Testing, the Advisory Board for the Missouri Show Me Healthy Woman program, the Oncology Nursing Society Hot Flash Clinical Guideline team, and the Oncology Nursing Society Genomics Task Force. Mahon has more than 220 publications in peer reviewed journals beginning in 1986. She has served as an associate editor of the Oncology Nursing Forum and Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing coordinating departments on genetics/genomics.

She is the recipient of the Oncology Nursing Society national award for Excellence of Scholarship and Consistency of Contribution to Oncology Nursing Literature Award (2005). Mahon was also awarded the 2011 International Society of Nurses in Genetics Founders’ Award for Excellence in Education, the 2012 Saint Louis University School of Nursing Alumni Award, and the 2018 Certified Nurse of the Year from the American Nurses Credentialing Commission for Advanced Genetic Nursing.

Mahon received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing at Saint Louis University and a doctorate degree from Rush University.

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