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Pink Edition: Survival is about love, not luck

October 2, 2013 

Christine Donnell.JPG

Christine Donnell

My story with cancer began in 1978, when my mother passed away at the very young age of 55 from lymphoma, leaving behind my dad, five grown children and 17 grandchildren.

We all looked at each other and, believing the statistics that one out of four is diagnosed with cancer, we determined to celebrate when each one of us passed the age of 55. We then thought we might have beaten the odds. But we were wrong.

At age 57 (and I am second in the family, with three younger siblings), I was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation. Well, that wasn't too bad. No chemotherapy, no loss of hair and no throwing up. I generally felt pretty well. And then my sister, four years younger, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 56. She wasn't as lucky. She went through both chemotherapy and radiation.

But OK, even though it was now two out of five diagnosed with cancer, we continued to celebrate 55-and-older birthdays, and we were all still alive.

Then three years ago, my sister one year older than I was diagnosed with uterine cancer — and this was at the age of 67. So again, chemotherapy, hair loss, vomiting and all the other side effects that come with poison coursing through your body.

Once again, we were still alive and enjoying a family reunion a year later, when this same sister told us that she had just been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled for a lumpectomy when she returned home from the reunion. As you can expect, we were certainly now wondering whether we really were lucky! But we had the love and support of family, so we could get through all of it.

A week after an annual mammogram, I got the news that my cancer had returned, and this time in both breasts. So while my older sister was going through radiation, I was undergoing a double mastectomy. The doctors encouraged us to consider genetic testing, and two of us did the blood draw and anxiously awaited the results. Would we have to tell our daughters they might be at risk for breast cancer? But surprisingly, we were both negative for the cancer gene. So are we once again lucky? We think so! They say it was probably environmental, and since we grew up during the time of atomic bomb testing and believe we were downwinders, that was probably the cause. But that is another story.

It has now been a year since my mastectomy surgery, and we have had multiple reasons to rejoice and to mourn. In July we lost our father, who had experienced prostate cancer and melanoma. But we are a resilient family that still celebrates together at every family event, looking around at each other and saying, "Aren't we lucky! We have all made it past the age of 55! We are going strong."

So the end of the story is, at least in my mind, luck really has nothing to do with how our lives play out, and certainly cancer does not define us or pick on the unlucky ones. Love and family are what we are all about, not luck. We kids are still alive, past the age of 55, and we are blessed.

Christine Donnell, of Meridian, is the former superintendent of the Meridian School District.

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