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Dona Thomas has become familiar with many types of cancer during her 41 years as a nurse. Breast cancer included.
So when a hug goodbye from a close family friend in 2007 instantly produced an odd pain in her right breast, Thomas quickly became concerned.
As soon as she got home, she performed a self-examination and found a lump in her breast. She had had cysts in her breast since she was a teenager, so she knew it wasn’t that.
“It felt different, it didn’t move, it felt more attached,” Thomas said.
Family: Husband, Terry Thomas; three daughters, Whitney, Lindsey and Sarah; six grandsons.
Resides: North Vernon
Occupation: Nurse Practitioner at the health care clinic at the Walgreens on Beam Road in Columbus.
Types of breast cancer: intraductal invasive breast cancer and inflammatory breast cancer
Diagnosed: August 2007
Treatments: Chemotherapy, radiation, mastectomy
Not wanting to alarm anyone, especially her husband, Thomas scheduled a mammogram for the following day. She didn’t tell her husband, Terry, until she was already at the hospital for the scan. Fearing the worst, Dona Thomas said she just had a bad feeling.
“I just knew it. Especially when they said the radiologist was going to come and talk to me. I was in shock, I just couldn’t believe it. I felt so good at the time, I was in the best shape I had been in for a long time,” Dona Thomas said. “It was so surreal.”
Following the mammogram was a biopsy, which determined that she did have cancer.
Not one but two types: intraductal invasive carcinoma and inflammatory. Both were in her right breast.
Appointments were made to get chemotherapy started, and a plan of action was developed, which included telling family and friends.
“The girls were shocked that I could be ill. I was probably at my healthiest I had been for a long time. I had been doing yoga, fitness walking and eating healthy, so it was just so hard to believe. I had four grandsons at that time, and they were pretty upset that I could be sick, too,” Thomas said.
She said it was difficult to accept help. Thomas always was the one to take care of others, so being in this unfamiliar role was challenging.
Thomas underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy of her right breast and radiation. Exhaustion and varying side effects from the medicine and treatments took its toll at times.
It took nine months of treatment before Thomas’ oncologist determined the cancer inactive.
For now she still has oncologist appointments once every six months — although that may change to once a year — but she doubts that she will ever be completely released from care.
Thomas said the experience taught her important lessons.
She joked and said she learned she was a little more girly or what some might even call vain than she had realized.
Thomas recalled waking up at 4 a.m. one morning and her scalp was burning hot. She described it as if every hair follicle was tingling, and it was actually sore to the touch.
She went to the bathroom and gently grabbed a handful of hair, and a big chunk came out. At sunrise, she called her sister to tell her about the experience and then had one of her daughters come over to the house and shave her head.
“I didn’t like the idea of my hair falling out. I was surprised with myself at being so overwhelmed with this aspect, but for some reason I had a hard time accepting that,” Thomas said.
“I wore my wig all the time unless I was home.”
Susan Hall, one of Thomas’ longtime girlfriends, remembered when Thomas had to have her head shaved.
“I knew that I wanted to immediately go shopping and get her some large hoop earrings. I also bought her a quilted overnight bag as I knew she would be going for treatments. We have shed a lot of tears together through the years,” Hall said.
“When she called me to tell me about her cancer, I fell apart and told her that I loved her.”
Thomas said faith and her family helped her get through the ordeal, including the great support system, from friends to co-workers. She also said it was encouraging when patients would tell her that she was on a prayer list at their church.
She was on prayer lists at churches she had never even heard of.
Thomas said she knows that there is no way she could repay everyone, so she tries to pay forward. From small acts of kindness, such as just sending a thank-you note, to visiting a family at home who has had someone pass away.
She also tries to pay forward by offering advice.
“Do self breast exams. In the shower, lying down. Make it fun; teach your husband how to do them. Just do it. I had my mammogram nine months earlier, and in that time frame a lump the size of a lima bean had surfaced. Just do it,” Thomas said.
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