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'There are days I actually forget' Sense of community buoys Shelby County woman through ordeal


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Donna Christian with daughters Maria, 12, left, and Anna, 9, Aug. 30, 2012.
Donna Christian with daughters Maria, 12, left, and Anna, 9, Aug. 30, 2012.

Breast cancer survivor Donna Christian laughs during an interview Aug. 30, 2012, at Edinburgh Premium Outlets.
Breast cancer survivor Donna Christian laughs during an interview Aug. 30, 2012, at Edinburgh Premium Outlets.


Donna Christian wanted her co-workers to look deeply into her eyes as soon as she walked into the office.

So they obliged on a recent afternoon.

“Look straight at me,” office mate Nicole Anderson said.

Then, much to Christian’s delight, Anderson and others began gushing over her eyelashes. Earlier in the day, Williams bought lash extensions.

“When I had chemo, my eyelashes fell out and never grew back the same (thickness),” she said.

The rural Shelbyville area resident, 49, swears she worries little about such after-effects of her Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosed in May 2009. She simply used some recent vacation days from her job as Edinburgh Premium Outlets general manager to pamper

herself.

“Now,” she said, “there are days I actually forget that I ever had cancer.”

A recent medical checkup that she passed was a reminder, however.

Speaking of her nearly yearlong ordeal that included a disfiguring lumpectomy, she focused on her spiritual strength much more than depression or sadness.

“It probably deepened my faith,” she said.

In fact, a small placard on her desk touted a Scripture passage from Joshua 1:5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

On the day she got the news of the malignancy — a report she said she knew was coming — she held together, even though she was out of town on business. And she remained stoic even after remembering what her now-healthy mom, Alice Williams of Edinburgh, endured with breast cancer years ago.

Husband Jeff Christian,

however, briefly crumbled on the bed in a heap of emotion when she phoned him with the news.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said, adding that he purposely erased the date from his memory. He cried for half an hour, thinking she might die soon, leaving their two daughters motherless.

And then he uttered a prayer: “Lord, we’re too young for this.”

His greatest challenge was the personality differences between the two of them. He allows his feelings to surface easily and regularly. Donna Christian keeps her emotions hidden.

“The toughest thing for me to deal with was the fact that Donna wasn’t dealing with it,” Jeff said. “I kept wondering, ‘How could she not be upset about this?’”

Christian could stay focused on work and daughters Maria, 12, and Anna, 9, because she already had read plenty about breast cancer survival rates. So she turned adversity on its head — or her own head, so to speak.

When chemo stole her long, brown hair, she reveled in wigs of every kind. Blonde. Red. Black. Pink. Short. Long.

“I felt very self-conscious at first when I wore one,” she said. “But that lasted for only a day. And there were so many medical tests to go through that it almost seemed like a dream.

“With all that, I really couldn’t think about losing my hair.”

Plus, she found a positive element amid loss.

“I didn’t have any leg hair to shave,” she said, laughing with a loud cackle.

Before the cancer hit, Christian had just organized a Divine Chicks book club at her Mount Auburn Christian Church. She felt moved to launch such a group in case she or her friends faced trauma — sickness, death or divorce.

She found herself surprised to be the first one helped.

“That group was so good to me,” she said. “They did everything they could to make this journey easier.”

Her daughters took their own roles as divine chicks. When nausea reigned during chemo treatments, Anna would bring her mom slices of angel food cake to settle her stomach. And Maria declined a chance to go to Disney World with friends so she could help her mother.

Amid such selflessness, Christian has remained upbeat, even after contracting lymphedema, a condition causing swelling after removal of lymph nodes. Yet, it’s evident only to the sharpest eyes looking at her sometimes swollen left hand and arm.

She also remains grateful that her lumpectomy and breast reconstruction could be done in one surgery in October 2009. And she remembers the love and compassion she felt from medical personnel during her ordeal.

“That’s one of the biggest things the Pink Machine has done,” she said. “It has given us plenty of hand holding.”

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