Donna’s story: A Viking bloodline and a lung cancer fighter
Donna enjoyed working in hospitality, working as a bartender and cocktail waitress and even owning a “hole in the wall” at one time. Although 61, she was still very busy working until her illness took over with fatigue and weight loss making it difficult to work and forcing her to go on disability.
Originally diagnosed at an urgent care with pneumonia, Donna’s health became progressively worse over the next five months, experiencing the same symptoms of breathlessness, vomiting, no appetite or energy.
Finally fed up with not feeling well she drove herself to the hospital emergency department at 3 a.m. where she learned the real reason for her being so ill.
Reading the body language and the lack of eye contact from the doctor and staff, Donna said, “I just knew this wasn’t going to be good.” With sadness in his voice the doctor delivered the diagnosis, “Unfortunately, I have some news that is going to change your life.” Donna quickly responded with, “It’s cancer, right?”
“I actually felt bad for the doctor as he took the news way worse than I did,” said Donna. Continuing to explain that she handled the confirmation of her diagnosis really well and didn’t even cry. “I could lay curled up in a ball and cry and feel sorry for myself,” ironically stating this out loud, Donna teared up but continued, “or I can just deal with it head on.”
Donna believes its how she dealt with the diagnosis that made all the difference “it is what it is” but “positivity goes a long way.”
Donna’s primary care physician referred her to Medical Oncologist Rachel Raab, MD at Messino Cancer Centers. After reviewing her scans, Dr. Raab diagnosed her with stage IV lung cancer, a non-small cell lung cancer. She also has a rare mutation; an RET fusion which is only found in approximately 1-2% of non-small cell lung cancers.
Her RET fusion was actually diagnosed using Foundation One—a test that uses genomic profiling to look for mutations and other cancer-relevant changes in the tumor itself.
Feeling lucky to have Dr. Raab as her doctor, Donna said they really connected. “Instead of a normal patient and doctor relationship it feels more like a friendship. Dr. Raab really takes the time to explain everything and she doesn’t try to quickly run out of the room like most doctors.”
Donna explained, “When the doctor says you only have a few months to live unless you do this—you just do it!” Dr. Raab initially started her on chemotherapy and then Retevmo™ which was just FDA-approved in May 2020.
“I admire Donna for her courage and resilience! When I first met her she was very sick, feeling very poorly and contemplating hospice care,” said Dr. Raab. “I strongly encouraged a trial of treatment with the hope that this would help her feel better and live longer. Thankfully she was agreeable and received chemotherapy followed by Retevmo™ for which she had a dramatic response in just two months.”
Donna feels like this treatment is a “miracle” stating even further, “I swear on the first day I felt better and then the second day I felt even better, each day I kept feeling better. The worst part about it is everything taste likes cinnamon.”
Dr. Raab admires Donna, “She speaks openly and honestly about her cancer diagnosis while maintaining optimism and gratitude for each day. She seems to always find a silver lining! Her positive and brave attitude and the fact that she maintains hope should serve as a message to other cancer patients.”
Unlike most cancer patients that have a support system helping to endure the daily battle of cancer, she doesn’t have family members close by. Her adult son, Brandon lives approximately four hours away in Charleston. Donna deals with the tough days mostly alone but is grateful for the weekends when she gets to spend time with her son.
She is also thankful for the staff at Messino Cancer Centers. Explaining that the infusion nurses make her feel so comfortable during treatments. Donna continued, not just with offering warm blankets and making sure she feels okay, but extending that care by offering to drive her home after treatment. Donna said, “The nurses know I am caring for myself and I know they are genuine when they offer to give me a ride home.”
Being secluded at home due to COVID-19 she stays connected with family and friends on social media. She recently reconnected with a cousin that told her that she has Viking blood in her ancestry. “I guess I’m a Viking woman and that’s where I get my toughness from,” said Donna.
Vikings are known for being brave warriors and being able to handle many different conditions. Donna laughs and says between her strong willed bloodline and her morbid sense of humor, this is how she gets through her tough days.
Donna stated that she spent her entire life… “work, work and working.” Now she wants to make sure to enjoy the things she loves. In addition to being a self-proclaimed TV junkie, she also enjoys getting outdoors for a motorcycle ride and going to the ocean, and that’s what she intends to do because “You never know when this might be the last time you get to do something you enjoy.”