A Survivor’s Story
When Deborah Donovan, office manager for Custom Complete Automotive in Columbia, received the results that no one wants to hear after a routine mammogram last August, her first thought was simple and straightforward: “Am I going to die?”
It was an honest question and one that isn’t uncommon among patients who hear the word “cancer.” But for Deborah, that fear only took hold in the beginning. Soon after, with reassurance from her doctor, along with a strong support system, Deborah’s question changed from one of doubt to one of confidence: “What’s the plan?”
With a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer HER2 positive, Deborah knew surgery was a given, but she needed more than that to prepare her for the trying road ahead. She didn’t want to wait, and she didn’t want to wonder. She wanted to know what was next.
“I wanted a plan,” Deborah says. “More than just the surgery and the rebuild — I wanted a plan.”
Cancer was never something Deborah expected to deal with. In fact, before experiencing breast cancer herself, she didn’t know anyone personally who had been through it. Still, she knew the value of preventive care, and it was during a routine visit to the Harris Breast Center for her yearly mammogram that her cancer was first discovered.
“It was a very small tumor,” she says, “and I never would have felt it because it was located on the chest wall in the back of my breast area.”
Deborah was sent to a surgeon almost immediately, but as talk of surgery and treatment began, she reached out to Rhonda Henstorf at Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA), who told her about a new doctor they had joining the team. She was referring to Dr. Liana Makarian, a medical oncologist who came to MCA in July 2016.
“She said, ‘You’re going to love her — you guys will get along great,’” Deborah remembers of her conversation with Rhonda. “And she was right. Dr. Makarian is awesome. She’s very easygoing, laid back, calm, takes her time and makes you feel great. She makes you feel like she’s listening to you.”
From her first meeting with Dr. Makarian, Deborah was able establish the plan she’d been seeking since her diagnosis.
“Once Dr. Makarian assured me that I wouldn’t die from this as long as she could help it, I was fine and ready to proceed with whatever needed to be done to get the cancer out of my body and make a full recovery,” Deborah says.
Without hesitation, she hit the ground running.
‘I was never alone’
Although early detection contributed to an optimistic prognosis for Deborah, her specific type of cancer, along with the HER2 status, meant chemo and Herceptin were recommended in addition to surgery. Deborah had her surgery on Aug. 3, 2016, followed by her first round of chemo on Aug. 26.
“I did good, no side effects,” she says of the first session. “And I’m thinking: ‘This is a breeze. What are people talking about?’ After the second one, of course, the hair started falling out.”
Although Deborah remained optimistic through most of her treatment, losing her hair was admittedly hard. With her family’s support, however, she managed to turn a difficult side effect into something worth smiling about.
“My oldest daughter, she shaved my head,” Deborah says. “The grandkids were there, and they helped cut my hair. And then they took washable magic markers and colored on my head, so it was family thing — it was fun.”
It was that support that helped Deborah through the most difficult moments of treatment.
“I am blessed to have such a great support team, between family and friends,” she says. “Both of my daughters and mother attended most of my chemo sessions. I was never alone. My sisters each attended a session along with a niece and my mother-in-law.”
The most surprising support, Deborah says, came during her last chemo session in December 2016, when an old friend showed up from Texas. She was in town to visit her new grandbaby and made arrangements with one of Deborah’s daughters to surprise her. Another friend would text her every morning that she had chemo.
“I never understood how she remembered, but she did,” Deborah says.
Deborah found support from her work family as well, at Custom Complete Automotive, where she’s worked for the past 27 years. The hardest part, she says, was telling her boss, who had just lost his sister to stomach cancer.
“He has been wonderful through the whole process,” she adds.
‘Life is precious’
After her diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Deborah went through six sessions of chemo, followed by Herceptin treatment for HER2 positive, which lasted from the end of December 2016 until Aug. 25, 2017. Some side effects from treatment surprised her, such as her taste buds changing, while others were harder to cope with, such as losing her hair or not being able to be as active as she once was. It was a difficult year — one she hopes to never repeat — but today, Deborah is happy to report she is cancer free.
“Life is precious, obviously, but I feel very blessed,” she says. “I feel blessed that I caught mine early, no hesitation, did my chemo, and it was done. Hopefully I won’t ever have to deal with it again.”
Deborah is also eager to share what she’s learned with other women facing similar diagnoses, and already, just months after completing her own treatment, she’s showing support however she can. Deborah’s daughter, Ashlei, makes special blankets that Deborah gives to other women Dr. Makarian has as patients. Included with each blanket is a personal note from Deborah that lets them know they are not alone, along with her phone number and email address if they ever need to talk.
“I am full of advice, so one of the first things I tell women that I have spoken to is that: You are one in eight and have been chosen to be in this club. It wasn’t a club that you wanted to join, but you are now a member,” she says. “I also try to tell people that you are stronger than you think, and you will make it through this. It won’t be easy, but you will survive.”
To schedule your next mammogram, Call the Harris Breast Center at 573-815-8150, or visit boone.org/Our-Services/Stewart-Cancer-Center/Harris-Breast-Center.