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Documenting her treatment ups and downs through photos and blog posts gave Jacki Donaldson, a mom of two young boys in Gainesville, Florida, surprising strength and comfort. Here, a glimpse into her brave journey.A New Reality
The older of my two sons, Joey (who was 3 at the time), took this photo just days after my diagnosis in November 2004. My intention was to capture my appearance before cancer took it away. I didn't plan to look so somber. Yet it's fitting. I was sad. The good news: I caught my cancer early, at stage 1, so it hadn't spread. I wouldn't lose my entire left breast—I needed only a lumpectomy to remove the pea-size tumor. The bad news: My growth contained too many HER2 proteins, meaning my cancer was aggressive (which is common in young women—I was 34). Doctors told me the post-surgery treatment would therefore be harsh. Indeed it was.
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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Eight weeks of chemotherapy sent toxic liquids through my blood, aimed at killing any cancer cells that may have escaped from the tumor before it was removed. I chose to have a port surgically implanted underneath my collarbone for the duration of the chemo, instead of getting repeatedly pricked with needles. A soft, slim catheter tube that was attached to the bottom of the port directed the drugs to my heart, which then pumped them throughout my body. After each of the four three-hour infusions, I felt nauseated and constipated. The drugs stole my energy, my taste buds, and, worst of all, my hair—what a way to start the new year. To minimize the trauma of pulling out larger and larger clumps, I split my locks into three ponytails and cut off each one. Then Joey and my husband, John, shaved the rest. Nothing made me as ill as seeing my bald head. Cancer was stripping me of my identity. And there was very little I could do about it.
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What Cancer Looks Like
It took nearly two weeks after my head was shaved for me to muster the courage to pose for this photo. Melissa Etheridge inspired me. She had just completed chemo for breast cancer and performed at the Grammys in February of 2005, baring her own bald head for the world to see. I thought she was beautiful and brave, so I followed her lead, displaying my most visible sign of cancer. My guys also lifted me up. My younger son, Danny, who wasn't yet 2 and didn't know anything was wrong, provided much-needed hugs and kisses. And one day Joey said: "Don't worry, Mommy. You're not going to die—it's only a haircut." He was right.
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It may have been only a haircut, but I didn't like it. So I bought wigs made of human hair. I topped them with hats and wore them every day. The straight wig in this photo reminded me of the person I knew before cancer. This was my goal: To look like nothing had changed, when in reality, life was spiraling out of my grasp. My mom helped me stay sane. She sat with me during chemo, cooked for my family, took the kids to school and played with them when I needed a nap. Much of my strength came from the kindness of others—like my friend Bev, who gave me a vase full of tulips, a group of moms who delivered a handmade quilt and another pal who left the inspirational book Love, Medicine & Miracles (Harper Perennial), by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., on my doorstep.
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Me and the Boys
I always thought I wanted curly hair, so here I am midway through chemo, in February 2005, wearing a wavy wig while horsing around with my boys, who kept life simple and helped me heal. Joey, realizing how sick I was at one doctor's appointment, said, "Mommy, you need to go home and rest. I'll bring you a banana." Danny told me: "I love you with all my heart." Now 5 years old, he continues to tell me this. I think he senses I still need comforting.
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Sick and Tired
Though chemo was coming to a close, its side effects were starting to kick in. In my past life I never took much more than an occasional Advil for a headache. Once cancer struck I was given an arsenal of meds: pills to battle nausea, antibiotics to fend off fevers, numbing creams to apply to the skin on top of my port and injections I needed the day after every chemo session to keep my blood counts stable. I hated these drugs because they usually indicated I wasn't feeling well. More than anything I did not want to be sick.
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Chemo Takes Its Toll
Two weeks after my final dose of chemo I was weak, and my mind was scattered. Frustrated, I called my oncologist. "Maybe you need more support," she said. But family and friends comforted me daily: Caring e-mails flooded my inbox, cards arrived regularly and brownies were sent as gifts. I didn't need more help—I needed to feel better. A blood test revealed that the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in my body had plummeted. You see, chemo doesn't just kill cancer cells but all fast-growing cells (like the good ones found in the hair, digestive system and bone marrow). It took five days in the hospital, IV antibiotics, a new oncologist and a blood transfusion before I was fixed. When Joey saw me in bed, looking pale and fragile, he said: "You look like an alien." Little did I know that in another two weeks it would happen again. The lingering snowball effect of the toxic drugs threw my body for a loop.
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Ready for Radiation
The lumpectomy got rid of all the visible tumor cells, and chemo went after any circulating cancer cells—next stop, radiation. Five days a week for six weeks, starting in April 2005, radiation sent waves (think: x-rays on steroids) directly into the tissue where my tumor had been, killing any microscopic cancer cells that remained. Doctors temporarily marked my breast and an underarm, so they knew exactly where to deliver treatment. I lay still on my back for a few minutes while I was "zapped" by a buzzing machine. My skin burned and blistered a bit, and I was tired, but compared to chemo, it was a breeze.
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As I finished radiation, my oncologist told me about a new drug called Herceptin, which had just been approved for use in women with aggressive HER2-positive, early-stage breast cancer. Basically, HER2 proteins stick to the surface of cancer cells and yell, "Divide faster!" All breast cancer cells have some of these proteins, but mine had extra. Herceptin flows through the bloodstream looking for HER2 proteins clinging to any lingering cancer cells and deactivates them. Since a handful of women had experienced adverse reactions to the drug, and a few had even died, I was worried. But early findings pegged it as a lifesaver, so I consented. (Since then, clinical trials have shown that Herceptin reduces recurrence by about 50 percent. It's now being administered to more than 400,000 women yearly.) Every three weeks for a year I'd sit in a pink, leathery recliner for three hours as the liquid drug entered my port. (I left mine in after chemo because I was superstitious that if my doctor took it out, the cancer would return.) My "Herceptin Wednesdays" were like spa trips, minus the pedicures. Since Herceptin targets only cancer cells, not normal cells, there were no major side effects. I didn't lose my hair—or my mind. Here I am waiting for my first dose with my niece, Jordan, who is now 3 and has no memory of my cancer. How lucky for her.
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Here I am with my husband, John, an information technology guy, on our 10th anniversary in July 2005. We met while attending the University of Florida. John's support never wavered during my cancer crusade. He's a Marine, after all, trained for tough times. During my weak moments (and there were plenty), John would leave work to cook, clean and fly solo parenting missions while I was cooped up in hospital rooms. He was also instrumental in helping me channel my emotions. John created cancerspot.org, the personal blog I've been authoring since my diagnosis.
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Bouncing Back from Treatment
Six months into my Herceptin therapy, I felt strong and healthy. In January 2006, when this photo was taken, I mourned the loss of my straight, long, blond hair. As you can see, chemo drugs can change your hair's color and texture, so brown curls began sprouting from my scalp. I started letting my hair grow out and flat-ironing it because I never did learn to love my ringlets. Gradually, as time passed, my dark hair naturally became lighter.
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Once the Herceptin course ended, my doctor declared me cancer free—and I still am. Due to my age and cancer type, there's a 90 percent chance the disease won't return. But to increase my odds, I started taking better care of my body. I ran a road race last November with my sister, Tracy, and Joey, now 7, in honor of my grandfather, who had died of esophageal cancer. We all outran cancer that day. And we must keep outrunning it, because my sister and my mom (since they're first-degree relatives) have double the normal risk of getting breast cancer. More distant family members, like my two nieces (Jordan now has a sister), and even my two boys have a slightly elevated risk.
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An Uplifting Discovery
Having gone through cancer, I'm no longer modest about my breasts. After all, they've been poked, prodded, sliced, diced, poisoned and radiated, which kind of makes them belong as much to the medical profession as they do to me. Given the public showing of my breasts over the past several years, I decided to invest in a push-up bra and am giddy with joy about wearing it. My transformation, from pancake to perky, may not seem like much in this photo. But to me—and a few others who have taken notice—this bra rocks. I realize now that I should have been showing off my girls a long time ago. I've still got them, after all. I might as well flaunt them.
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The topic of cancer isn't so front and center anymore. It's been blurred by school routines, soccer games and family trips. Though I was once plagued by the fear of developing the disease again, I now realize that sometimes a bump is just a bump, a headache is just a headache. While I'm monitored closely for recurrence (a mammogram, ultrasound and MRI every six months, and monthly self-exams in the shower), I cope better with each passing day, thanks in part to a year's worth of weekly counseling and an antidepressant. In truth, cancer has been a gift. It's forced me to take stock of all that is precious in my life—like these three guys who cushioned my fall and helped me get back up again. It's given me clarity, peace and a reason to live each day to its fullest. I'm convinced that cancer isn't the end of my days; it's just the beginning.Originally published in the October 1, 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.