This is the second of a two-part series that chronicles Donna Murray and Shawn Love’s face-off against breast cancer, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. In part one, Donna confronts breast cancer twice over the span of 17 years and learns she’s a carrier for the BRCA gene mutation. Here, her daughter, Shawn, discovers she’s also a carrier and begins the fight of her life.
“Considering my mom’s history, I wasn’t surprised,” Shawn Love says of her positive BRCA test results in July 2015. After all, her mother, Donna Murray, not only battled breast cancer twice, she also tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation that spring. (Read more about Donna’s story.) As a preventive measure, Shawn had her ovaries removed in August 2015 and was scheduled to have both breasts removed in January 2016.
But a routine mammogram a few weeks before the surgery threw a monkey wrench in her plans. Doctors spotted a suspicious-looking mass in her right breast. Shawn, then 40, knew she had a few things going for her: She’d never felt a lump or noticed any other symptoms, and her last MRI, six months earlier, was clear. Because of Donna’s recurrence, however, she had a feeling the odds weren’t stacked in her favor.
|BREAST CANCER RISK*
|With BRCA gene mutation
|With BRCA, after preventative surgery
*Lifetime, American women. Source: Breastcancer.org
Read more about the BRCA gene mutation and other possible risk factors here.
Most people, including Shawn, don’t find out they have breast cancer after one mammogram or MRI. A complete diagnosis typically unfurls after a battery of tests and over a series of phone calls or visits. As Shawn learned she had breast cancer, and then more specifically stage two invasive ductal carcinoma, she stayed remarkably calm. She was focused on the fight ahead, even as her fiancé, John, her three daughters, and the rest of her family struggled to understand why cancer was revisiting them yet again. “My gynecologist said I was the only patient he’s ever known who was mentally prepared to have breast cancer,” she says. “But that’s how I look at things. When my mom was sick, it was like, OK, let’s do this.”
On January 28, 2016 ― the day Shawn was supposed to have a prophylactic double mastectomy ― doctors decided to put in a port so she could begin chemotherapy the following week.
To say that Shawn’s treatment was difficult would be an understatement. In addition to the extreme fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite, she also had a weakened immune system, which made her susceptible to illness. She was hospitalized after bouts of the flu and C. diff. colitis.
Shawn also had severe allergic reactions to two of the three types of chemotherapy. During four rounds of doxorubicin, also known as “the red devil,” she experienced trouble breathing, swelling and rashes. At one frightening point during treatment, her heart stopped. Nurses took turns watching her during every visit in case she had a life-threatening reaction, and a crash cart was attached to her IV pole every time.
A supportive network
The outpouring of support from loved ones was a great source of comfort for Shawn. Friends dropped off hot meals and offered to walk the family’s dog. Coworkers sent candy, magazines and cards every week to keep her spirits up. Michelle Majoy, the care manager at Aetna who previously supported Donna during her treatment, helped Shawn secure necessary paperwork, lined up counseling and fielded questions.
Donna stayed by her side, arranging to work from home so she could accompany Shawn to chemo, tests or doctor’s visits when John wasn’t able to. “It was tough to see her be as sick as she was through the chemo process. The hardest part of being a parent is watching a child go through something really tough and not being able to fix it for them,” she says. “But I was very glad I was close enough to give support ― and physically able to do so.”
If Shawn learned anything from watching her mom take on breast cancer twice, it was the importance of maintaining normal routines. So she continued to go to work, as a senior project manager at Aetna, and often brought her laptop with her during treatments. She attended all of her daughters’ dance and cheerleading competitions. She set a goal to attend 100 barre classes during chemo and hit the mark shortly before the double mastectomy. The night before the surgery, she and John made a five-hour drive home from a Guns ‘N Roses concert in Atlanta.
While Shawn was touring colleges with her oldest daughter, her hair, which went down to the middle of her back, began to fall out. Like Donna, Shawn asked her brother-in-law to shave her head at home. He did the honors in the driveway, and her family was by her side. “I never let what people thought about my bald-head, no-eyebrows, sometimes-very-sick-looking self get to me,” she says. “I think that helped me to recover faster from the surgeries because it was just part of the fight.”
After chemo ended, Shawn prepared for a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to go through the long surgery and recovery alone. Her sister, Melissa Nixon, had also tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, and after having both ovaries removed, was scheduled to also have a double mastectomy and reconstruction.
On July 28, 2016, the sisters had their surgeries in the same hospital, one right after the other. They stayed in neighboring hospital rooms, and later recuperated on each other’s sofas.
Adjusting to the "new normal"
Cancer leaves its mark. For Donna, it’s the slight sag in her right breast. It’s the short pixie cut, inspired by one of the four wigs she wore after her own hair fell out. It’s the constellation of tiny blue dots tattooed on her chest, which doctors used to guide the radiation. “Every once in a while, I’ll notice them,” she says. “It makes me chuckle.”
Shawn carries physical reminders, too. Chemo gifted her with a head of big, bouncy curls, but also left her with mental fogginess, problems with short-term memory and lymphedema, or swelling, of her right arm and leg. And while she regards her port scar with great affection (“it saved my life”), she struggles with a slower metabolism, subsequent weight gain and natural letdown after the fight of her life ended. “I have new hair and a new body, and it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that they’re mine and I have to keep them,” she says. “I’m still working on this every day through counseling and with motivation from friends and family.”
If anything, breast cancer has made both women more focused than ever on the future. Recently retired, Donna now sits on the board of directors for Earlier.org, an organization whose mission is to identify a biological test to diagnose breast cancer. She also makes a point to educate her grandchildren about the disease and took great pride when Natalie, 12, lobbied her class to donate money to the cause.
Shawn made a conscious decision to stay positive during treatment ― she loved cracking jokes with the nurses. Now she’s working to regain that optimism. “I’ll never again be the person I was prior to February 4, 2016,” she says of the day she started chemo. “But I try every day to get back the motivation to work out, to be a great mom and fiancé, to keep the house clean, to do a good job, to talk to my clients, and not be hard on myself for all the changes life has thrown at me. Some days that’s really hard.”
“The silver lining is, I beat breast cancer,” she continues. “It could have been worse than it was. After all, the cancer appeared within six months. But I’m alive. Here I am.”
Shawn and Donna’s story began in Family history, part 1: "You think the worst": A mother battles breast cancer, twice.
About the author
Bonnie Vengrow is a journalist based in NYC who has written for Parents, Prevention, Rodale’s Organic Life, Good Housekeeping and others. She’s never met a hiking trail she doesn’t like and is currently working on perfecting her headstand in yoga class.