Survivor Stories 2013:
How did you first find out you had cancer?
I was 40 and living outside Philadelphia and had just started recording my third CD, The Last Straw, which was planned as a showcase of my songwriting abilities that we were to take to Nashville. After finding a lump during my monthly self-exam and having a negative mammogram and negative ultrasound, I was told by the women’s clinic I’d been going to in Philadelphia to just watch it. My future husband, Rich, felt that I needed a doctor closer to home. When I informed the new doctor of the lump and the recommendation to just watch it, he hit the roof. I learned that a negative ultrasound is not a good thing. My new doctor immediately set up a biopsy. When I went in to have the stitches removed, the surgeon’s officemate had the unpleasant task of breaking the news that it was cancer.
How did you react when you heard the news?
On the elevator leaving the surgeon’s office, I had what I can only describe as “death chills.” I didn’t cry or get crazy, but I was terrified. I needed a second opinion for insurance, so instead of using another doc in the area, I went to a totally different area and hospital. It was confirmed.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
For this first cancer, I was given a choice: lumpectomy plus radiation or modified radical mastectomy. I chose the latter, assuming that I was going to avoid radiation. The “margins” weren’t clean, however, meaning that there were cancer cells too close to the chest wall. So, I received five weeks of radiation. Only one of the oncologists in the team working on my case recommended additional treatment, and I decided not to get chemotherapy. A year later, I found another lump in the other breast. It was more of a pre-cancer, and I could have had a lumpectomy, but I decided to have a simple mastectomy. They didn’t take the lymph nodes from my arm in that one.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
Two things: The amount of help and support I received from my church community and how much trouble I had with the saline implants. One leaked and its replacement slipped down, and the other one had an issue with fluid building up around it, which meant I spent a memorable holiday season going to the hospital every day to have it drained. I never got over the itchy, creeped out feeling I got from the implants. Several years afterwards, when I found a lump under one implant, the only way they could tell for sure if it was cancerous was to remove the implant. I told them to take both of them out, which broke my plastic surgeon’s heart. As a blind woman, the look of them didn’t impress me. I’ve never regretted it. What I regret is not having both breasts removed after the first diagnosis.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Take a deep breath, do your homework so you know exactly what kind of cancer it is, what stage it’s in and what treatments are out there. Surround yourself with people who love you. Let them help you with things you need help with, but make your own decisions.
How long have you been cancer free?
God willing, in a few weeks, it will be 23 years.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
After treatment for the first cancer, I returned to the recording studio and finished the CD. Then, just as we had sent out the masters and art work to have them made into CDs, I found the second lump. I thought that this second time would be a bit of a breeze. The cancer wasn’t as advanced, treatment wasn’t as complicated and I already knew the ropes. I should be back on my feet in no time. It didn’t work that way. I was so drained both physically and financially that it took its toll. My husband lost his job during the whole ordeal, and to my great regret, we just couldn’t go to Nashville. We decided to cut our losses, move to the country and pick up the pieces from there. I gave up songwriting; it was just too painful to think about what might have been.
I dedicated myself to making an improvement in the lives of blind Americans. I wrote about issues like the Braille literacy crisis for online magazines, spoke to community groups, and used my skills as a volunteer publicist for the nonprofit National Federation of the Blind to place stories about exceptional blind people and the issues we face in media throughout the country. September 11 brought me back to writing music; I had scheduled a concert at a local folk club for that week. I couldn’t show up in good conscience without a few songs on the subject.
Recently, I published my novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill, an action adventure for general audiences. It received pre-publication recommendations from professionals in the fields of education, rehabilitation, and the arts as a tool to promote inclusion, diversity, and anti-bullying. I haven’t recorded them yet, but I wrote several songs for the book.
Several of the women in my life died of metastatic breast cancer, including both of my grandmothers and a dear friend. I honored them by including them as characters in my novel. It is a comfort to me that they will forever walk the pages of The Heart of Applebutter Hill in health.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Life is short, and we have no idea what’s around the next bend. Stay involved in the world, and do something good with your time. To help ensure that you’ll be around, get over that fear so many of us have of doing breast self-exam, and do it regularly. It’s crazy at first, since everything feels like a lump, but just deal with the fear and do it. Trust yourself if you ever find anything that feels out of place or like a pea or pencil eraser. Don’t let anyone tell you that a negative ultrasound is good news; it’s not. Ultrasounds look for nice, watery cysts, which is what you hope to find. Cancer is denser tissue and doesn’t show up. Whatever happens to you, face it on your feet with an open heart and mind, and ask for whatever support you need. There are no guarantees, no magic cures, or foolproof methods to avoid cancer. Do your best to live a happy, healthy, and productive life. That itself is good enough.
Donna W. Hill is a writer, speaker and avid knitter from Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. A songwriter with three recordings, she has published her first novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill. Find links to print and eBook versions at DonnaWHill.com
A two-time breast cancer survivor, Hill found both tumors herself and is dedicated to spreading the word about the importance of breast self-exam. Her story appears in Dawn Colclasure’s On the Wings of Pink Angels (2012). In July 2010, she was recognized for her volunteer efforts by Stanford University’s Stanford Social Innovations Review, Third Sector Grit. Her essay “Satori Green” appears in Rick Singer’s Now: Embracing the Present Moment (July 2011, O-Books Publishing).
She was interviewed for Dr. Kent Gustavson’s Blind, But Now I See (2010, Blooming Twig Press) the biography of blind guitarist Doc Watson, whom Hill interviewed for a radio program in the 1970s. Her book Unopened Gifts (1994, published with a grant from Lutheran Brotherhood), helps congregations integrate people with disabilities.