Breast Cancer Grad- Dana Donofree
Name: Dana Donofree
Age at Enrollment: 27
Major: Stage 1, HER2+, ER+ IDC
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? Nada. I was healthy, strong and training for my wedding. Everything seemed normal. I didn't feel, look or even seem “sick.”
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? Like so many people, I found a lump accidentally, and in the shower. I brushed up against it in my armpit; it was small and hard, like a pea. But, I knew it wasn’t there before, or at least I didn’t remember feeling it before. My best friend and sister had just gone through something similar and seen doctors. So, I thought it was appropriate to call the doctor. My friend and sister had received the “all clear.” I didn’t.
Courses Completed: I had a bilateral mastectomy, with implant reconstruction, followed by six rounds of chemo. The chemo treatment led to two platelet transfusions; the platelet crash was more life-threatening than the chemo! After initial treatment, I was put on tamoxifen initially for five years, and currently I am on Lupron and tamoxifen for at least another five years, but likely longer.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? Hearing I had the “Big C.” I was shocked. I was young. And, I was naive. I didn’t know what it meant in terms of what was next, or how my life would change. I was in my 20s, I was just at the beginning of “real, adult life” I certainly wasn’t expecting something so complicated. For me, cancer has never stopped since that first phone call from the doctor. Cancer is the shit that keeps on giving. Every 30 days is a new side effect or a new treatment or a new study or someone telling you that thing that was right before, is now wrong and then suddenly it is right again. The world now for me is more complex, but yet simpler. I focus more on myself now. Time has a hard, tangible definition in my world.
Any helpful (tangible) tips or tricks you discovered for dealing with your symptoms and/or cancer? I will say, I wish I started [emotional] therapy earlier. I always felt I was never “ready.” I was always trying to be strong; thinking I had to deal with everything on my own. This world is big, it’s complex, and you need help to navigate it. You can't always get that from your loved ones. Having someone else as the sounding board helping me work through my feelings and emotions, my anger and fear, has been incredibly healing. Asking for help doesn't make you weak, it makes you stronger.
How did your family and friends respond? Shocked. Stunned. Worried. Scared. You could see it in the eyes of everyone you told, right before the most frustrating words would leave their mouth: “Oh honey, you’re so young.” Or the least helpful (and most upsetting): “My Mom’s friends/grandma/aunt died of breast cancer.” Fear is something that everyone deals with differently. Some of my best friends couldn’t handle it and dropped out of my life, but I also made new ones along the way.
How did/do you find joy during this experience? I try to say YES to just about anything! I know conventional wisdom is about minimizing and learning to say no, but for me it feels more appropriate to always say yes. If there is something that comes my way, and it’s something I want to do, I’m sure as hell going to find a way to do it. That chance may not come around again, and I refuse to leave this earth with any regrets.
Did you learn anything about yourself? If so, what was it? I am stronger than I ever realized. I believe focusing and thinking of yourself can lead you down many different paths, and fill your heart with more joy than can ever be imagined. I still take things seriously, but I also know how to let them go, then have fun and not stress about it! This mindset is something I didn’t have before cancer. I was a fanatic and workaholic.
Did you continue to work throughout treatment? How was that experience for you? I did. I had to. When you’re just starting out in your career, you may not have savings, you depend on that paycheck. And cancer bills add up very quickly. My employer and coworkers were amazing throughout my treatment. They understood my limitations, they brought support to me daily, and they never questioned my needs. I was also able to work remotely around my chemo days which made such a difference. Talking about your cancer diagnosis with coworkers and supervisors may feel overwhelming or scary, and that’s okay. But, often how we build it up in our mind is much worse, and it’s better to just talk about it with them sooner than later.
Some people change their life goals, plans or career trajectory after cancer - either by starting a foundation or a blog, moving across the country or making a huge career decision.
Did you take a leap of any kind? Yes! After my mastectomy and reconstruction, I found none of my beautiful bras fit my changed body. Going to mastectomy boutiques, trying on bras in big box shops or speciality stores, shopping for lingerie next to wheelchairs was both upsetting and demoralizing. I couldn’t cry in another fitting room when nothing worked. I was vibrant, I was a fashion designer, I liked feeling sexy, and I wasn’t going to settle for a sports bra or “grandma” bra. One night I realized, wait, I am a fashion designer, I know how to source material, create items and distribute them. Why am I not making my own bra? So, I got out my sketchbook and my company, AnaOno was born. I went from a full-time corporate job to start-up life, and now we provide lingerie and loungewear to those affected by breast cancer all over the world.