Local elected official tells story of breast cancer survival
By Leila Beem Núñez, Editor
It was around Easter when Donna Toney knew she had a situation on her hands. She had decided to take a bath instead of a shower that day in April of 1989, to keep her then-long, newly permed hair from getting wet. Smiling, she called it her “Farrah Fawcett” hair. Sitting in the tub shaving under her arm all those years ago was when she found the knot under her skin, a lump about the size of a quarter.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer the next month, at just 29.
“There were doctors all throughout this Middle Tennessee region who just couldn’t understand it,” Toney said. “They couldn’t understand it.”
A 28-year survivor, Toney has for the most part kept the details of her breast cancer fight to herself, an experience still painful for her family to remember. As an elected public figure as Coffee County register of deeds, those details were private, until now. Toney recently decided that she would use her story for whatever good it could do.
“I had [cancer] very young, and I’ve lived with that for almost 30 years,” Toney said. “Yes, life changed, but I kicked it back and I want women to know that you can go through this and you can come out stronger than you would have ever been.”
‘Like jumping off a cliff inside’
After finding the lump, Toney, mother of a then-8-year-old son, tried not to panic, weighing everything as logically and calmly as she could. Women in her family told her not to worry; they’d had lumps before and they were always benign. That was reassuring.
Then Toney called a pharmacist she knew, and her take was not as positive: If the lump feels rough under the skin, like cauliflower, instead of being smooth and round like a marble, the pharmacist said, it could be worrisome.
“And that’s how mine felt,” Toney said. “It was like touching the top of broccoli or cauliflower.”
Doctors were stumped. Mammograms could not even read the lump because, being so young, her breast tissue was too dense. The doctor in Murfreesboro, who had delivered her child, was quiet. He said he would have to schedule a needle aspiration biopsy, a procedure that helps to diagnose or rule out cancer. The lump was solid.
“I knew upon the look on his face that he had fear written all over him. He said, ‘Donna, I have to send you to a surgeon right now. I’m making a phone call,’” Toney said. “All alarms went off.”
Two weeks later, Toney went back to have the biopsy done. When she came to from the anesthesia, she awoke to the surgeon shaking her shoulders to wake her up. He was saying the results were not good and that they would have to talk before Toney could go home.
It was breast cancer.
“It was very blunt and very cold and very to-the-point,” Toney said. “It was like jumping off a cliff inside.”
Family members surrounding her began to cry.
“That was when I thought, I’m not dreaming,” Toney said. “But I kept telling them, ‘It’s going to be OK. They’re going to tell us what we need to do and we’re going to do it and it’s going to be OK.’”
Things moved quickly after that. The next morning, she was back at the hospital, taking in all her options for treatment. She was referred to an oncologist, a cancer specialist. A couple of days later, Toney decided on the most highly-recommended treatment for her at the time: a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. After the chemo was completed, she would undergo reconstruction surgery.
“The main surgery was booked two weeks after that day,” Toney said. “That was a real hard time. It was a time of saying goodbye to a part of your body that you never thought at 29 years old you would have to say goodbye to.”
As a young woman, Toney said, her thoughts turned to how different she would look, how she would look in a swimsuit, how she would feel. Even doctors asked if she would be OK with going through chemotherapy, because she would soon after lose her long, blonde hair. But she decided that she wasn’t going to make decisions to save her hair or her breasts; she would make decisions to live.
“I came to grips with it. I said, I’m going to lose this part of my body because I’m going to live because I have an 8-year-old son, and I’m not going to die,” Toney said. “I learned to pray during that time like I had never known how to pray.”
Surgery and recovery
Without the laser technologies available today, the surgery was painful, Toney said, and waking up from it perhaps even more so.
“When you wake up, there’s definitely a part of you gone,” Toney said. “It’s a change that’s very definite, very prevailing to you.”
Toney said her stay in the hospital room for the next seven days was made easier by two nurses, both from Manchester, who helped her with much more than just her medical needs.
“They washed and braided my hair, they helped me with my hygiene and putting fresh things on and helped me to walk again,” Toney said. “I give them a lot of credit for rallying in that room with me. They were shocked and I was shocked, and they were young, not much younger than me. It was a learning time to know that a young mom can have breast cancer.”
Going home was hard for her family, she recalled.
“I had to be stronger every moment to help them be stronger,” Toney said.
About three weeks after her surgery, she began chemo. Though trying, Toney said she sought to handle it in a way that would make it all as routine as possible: maintaining a job at a bank in Manchester, she would go to work during the week as normal, going in for treatment on Fridays and resting in bed through the weekends. Even though it painful and often debilitating, she missed six days of work in six months, trying to stay as busy as possible.
“I think staying busy with everyday life and staying in tuned with challenges and working really hard [helped]. That took the fear away,” Toney said. “Working has been my avenue of living without fear.”
Some days were harder than others, she remembered. One of the hardest days was the first day her hair started to fall from the chemotherapy. She was at work when she scratched her head and noticed a clump come loose. She called her husband and together they went to buy a wig in Nashville that matched her hair perfectly.
For Toney, coworkers provided some of the strongest support. As a family away from home, they were saddened to see the changes Toney was experiencing.
“We rallied in closets and behind the scenes and I would say, ‘This is what I wanted to happen. This means the medicine is working. It’s going through my body,’” Toney said. “Everybody got their grip and we just trudged along. When I was at work, it was not a topic. When I was at work, I had my hair on and it didn’t look any different.”
After going through the chemo, her hair slowly started coming back. She and her family celebrated with a big vacation to the Bahamas. Toney decided she wouldn’t have her reconstructive surgery right away; she wanted to let her body rest. She had it about a year later, at Vanderbilt medical facilities.
“After a lot of coaching, I got the courage to move forward and trust in the doctors that they were going to be gentle and that I wasn’t going to feel [after the mastectomy], that it wasn’t going to be like that. I laugh about it now because that’s the way to be about it, but I’ve lived 28 years, long enough to outlive implants that had to be replaced. That’s an accomplishment, so we kind of laugh about it,” Toney laughed. “I’m proud of it.”
Nearly 30 years after her breast cancer diagnosis and having gone through two surgeries and chemotherapy, Toney is happy. She jokes that her hair is 28-year-old hair on a 58-year-old. She’s had two scares since completing her therapy, both biopsies negative. Every day, she said, she lives as fully as she can, on what she calls her borrowed time.
“I was one day gardening with a neighbor and he was recovering from cancer, and he said to me, ‘Donna, we have to make the best of this borrowed time,’” Toney said. “He said, ‘Donna, you and I have got to make the most out of our borrowed time,’ and it hit me like it had never hit me before.’”
Toney still makes the most of this time through her work, and with her family. She said getting a heredity test around the time of her diagnosis to determine whether her cancer caused by genetic mutation or environmental factors – and getting a negative on the mutation cause – has left her more at-ease.
“I’ve lived a long time,” Toney said. “I’m very proud to have a granddaughter now, and I don’t live in fear for her.”
She stressed the importance of taking any changes one notices in one’s body seriously, even for young women who may think nothing is wrong. Toney still goes to Vanderbilt each year in October for mammograms and MRIs.
Today, Toney said she tries to provide support for women going through the same struggle she did many years ago. She recalled the first time she reached out, back when her hair was growing back. She had just gotten back from the Bahamas, tan with a new pixie haircut, when she appeared at the door of a woman who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had a big old smile and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can live,’ because you do feel like you’re doomed, like you’re starting a fight that you’re not going to win,” Toney said. “But you can win.”
Toney said she admires women today fighting cancer, who live their everyday lives with their fight on display, even in her own community.
“Back in 1989, you could not have gone to work bald. Today you can. That’s how far we’ve come as a society,” Toney said. “It’s precious for me to see a bald head in public because they’re fighting with all their might, and they’re proud of their fight and they’re not hiding it.”
Perhaps her greatest source of strength over the years, Toney said, has been her faith.
“Even now, 28 years later, I would not have had the relationship I have now with the Lord if I had not experienced this,” Toney said. “That digging with your faith into your soul to be a warrior and say, this time shall pass, that’s pretty much how I walked through it.”