October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with the initiative aiming to increase awareness and raise funds for research, prevention, treatment and cure.
Coffee County resident Donna Toney shares her story to help those affected by breast cancer.
Toney was diagnosed with breast cancer in May, 1989, at the age of 29.
“Being only 29 years old, it was a shock to everyone in my life,” Toney said. “It was the war of my life. This is only the second time I have publicly talked about my battle. I knew immediately that I was going to fight and live. I was a mom to an 8-year-old son. Life was at full throttle.”
She received the diagnosis at a biopsy procedure.
“A week later, I would have a mastectomy,” Toney said. “Everyone around me was taken with shock and had a hard time holding up.”
She immediately started researching and had to agree to a plan of action.
“The plan would be aggressive due to me being young,” she said.
Doctors informed Toney that cancer usually affects younger patients more violently.
“The recommendation was surgery, followed with chemo, then reconstruction,” she said. “The surgery was very hard on me. Four weeks later, I began six months of strong and aggressive chemo. I was on a journey to live. Every day I prayed and meditated for the medicines to do their job. I continued to work full time at a bank.”
While at work, she started losing her hair.
“One day, all at once, my hair started to come out,” she said. “Within an hour I was on my way to a wig shop in Nashville. At that time, insurance did not cover a wig. The wig was such a match that most did not even know I had lost my hair.”
This wig was used by at least four other local patients after Toney, she said.
‘Bald is beautiful’
“In 1989 breast cancer was kept more quite,” she said. “ I could not have gone to work with my bald head – you just did not do that then. I am so very proud of the women of today.
“Bald is beautiful and it makes a really loud statement: I am surviving. Back in 1989, I was given a choice of taking meds that would result in hair loss or not to take them and take a less strong chemo. I did not care about my hair, I knew it would grow back.”
Chemotherapy was a challenge, she said.
“I went on Friday mornings so I would have that evening, Saturday and Sunday to recover,” Toney said. “The chemo in the 1980s was very strong with many side effects. But it was a blessing because it worked. As they told me then: the chemo is trying to kill the weeds without killing the grass.”
The support of family and friends helped Toney tackle cancer, and she tried not to let the disease disrupt her life.
“I am totally convinced, first of all, that prayers were answered,” she said. “I believe my best medicine was working and keeping a normal routine. While at work being sick or fighting the battle was not the topic. I was working and (many people) did not even know that I was in the battle. The employees and management were very supportive at the bank. They cared. I wanted things to stay normal for my son.”
Research and treatments have advanced immensely.
“Breast cancer treatment has advanced greatly in 30 years,” she said. “From the mammography machines to digital mammography, MRIs like x-ray machines to digital MRIs and 3D mammography, along with advancement with ultrasounds, treatments (and technology have improved).”
Surgeries are less invasive, she said.
“Radiation greatly improved with advancements,” Toney said. “The hereditary and gene testing is unbelievable today. I just retested last year and I was amazed of the advancement since 1998. I had very great news I do not carry a gene for breast cancer or any other 59 types of cancer that they tested me for. There are two different ways breast cancer is fed: by hormones or something independent, most likely environmental.
“I had an independently fed cancer. It was all very puzzling (because) I had a first cousin on my mom’s side that we lost to breast cancer in the later 1990s.”
Because of that relation, doctors thought Toney had the gene. Thankfully, she didn’t and “this was great news for all the women in my family,” she said.
Toney encouraged those battling cancer to keep fighting, and she offered advice.
“My greatest message to women battling breast cancer today is to think positive,” she said. “Plan an aggressive battle of action, do your research, eat a very healthy diet, keep your life routine normal and stay strong with your faith. I found a lot of peace when reading other women’s stories of their battle. Always know you are not alone. In our county, there were five other women with the same battle at the same time as me.”
In the US, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
“The first couple weeks after being diagnosed, I questioned why God had let this happen to me,” she said. “ I soon realized, it was going to be someone, so why not me? Maybe God felt I would be a good witness to other women that you can survive. Each year I became more and more thankful. I thank God each day for my borrowed time. I am very blessed to have 30 years cancer free.
“The cancer battle coupled with being raised as a child of a military family gave upon me the endurance I have today to survive challenges…If life hands you lemons make some great sweet lemonade and enjoy every sip.”