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“You think the worst”: A mother battles breast cancer, twice

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

This is the first of a two-part series that chronicles Donna Murray and Shawn Love’s face-off against breast cancer, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. Here, Donna confronts breast cancer twice over the span of 17 years and learns she’s a carrier for the BRCA gene mutation.  In part two, her daughter, Shawn, discovers she’s also a carrier and begins the fight of her life.

Shawn Love and her mother, Donna Murray, pride themselves on being able to handle whatever curveball life throws their way. So when both were diagnosed with breast cancer within months of each other, the High Point, North Carolina, women faced the disease the way they do everything else: head on, fully prepared and as a family.

Still, that’s not to say the fight was easy. In this two-part series, Donna and Shawn share their journeys, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery.

Listen to your body

There was a strong history of breast cancer on her father’s side, so when Donna’s hand brushed against a lump in her right breast one morning in December 1997, she felt something was wrong. The mass was half the size of her thumb and felt like a prune. Her stomach dropped.

A few days later, her gynecologist dismissed the lump. But Donna refused to leave the office without a referral for a mammogram. That led to an ultrasound, which led to needle core biopsies ― a chain of tests that confirmed Donna’s fear: She had stage one ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) breast cancer. Despite her usual can-do attitude, Donna, then 44, was devastated. “You think the worst immediately. I couldn’t concentrate ― the tears wouldn’t stop flowing,” she remembers. “I thought, I’ll never see my grandchildren.” 

Donna Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2015.

Instead of letting fear consume her, she dove headfirst into fight mode. In January 1998, Donna had a lumpectomy and a TRAM flap reconstruction, which used tissue from her stomach to rebuild the right breast. The surgery was considered a success ― no chemotherapy or radiation was required. In fact, the hardest part was recovering from the large, smile-shaped incision that ran from hip to hip. For a few months, Donna took tamoxifen, a medication given to women with hormone positive breast cancer that can help prevent cancer from returning when taken for five years. But she stopped when the resulting hot flashes became unbearable.

A shocking diagnosis

For the next 17 years, breast cancer was an unpleasant, but distant, memory. Donna had a job she loved, two daughters who lived nearby and five grandchildren she adored. The family ran races for breast cancer and helped raise awareness of the disease in the community. Things were good.

Little did she know, a dormant malignant cell was embedded in scar tissue in her right breast. It was finally detected in a routine mammogram, and in April 2015, tests confirmed that it had blossomed into full-blown breast cancer ― specifically stage one, grade-two invasive mammary carcinoma.

Because the disease had come back, doctors urged Donna to get tested for BRCA gene mutations, which would put her daughters at a higher risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers. When the results of the blood test showed that she was a carrier, Donna was overcome with guilt. “I realized I might have passed the gene mutation to my beloved daughters and grandchildren.” She urged Shawn and her sister, Melissa Nixon, to get tested. Shawn made an appointment right away; Melissa, at the time, decided to wait.

Shawn, pictured here with daughter Kasey, left, learned she was a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation.

Fighting a second round

Donna readied herself to go a second round with breast cancer. Surgeons removed the malignant tissue in early June 2015, and by the end of the month, she was preparing to start chemotherapy. She read up on what treatment entailed and leaned heavily on Michelle Majoy, her care manager at Aetna. “She was my lifeline,” Donna says of Michelle. “If I had a question, or needed a referral or a precertification, I could call and she would help me. I spent a great deal of time with her on the phone.”

As the powerful chemicals coursed through her body for three months, Donna struggled with constant flu-like aches, bouts of nausea and exhaustion. She swapped silverware for plastic forks and spoons because her mouth already tasted of metal. After food lost its flavor, she mostly ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She learned to close the lid and flush the toilet twice after using the bathroom, to prevent any chemicals from splashing up. She lost 15 pounds.

And then there was the hair loss. “The only thing on my mind after I started chemo was, when is my hair going to fall out?” she says. The first big clump came out shortly after the initial round of chemo ended. Donna wore caps and a turban to hang on to as many strands as possible. When the time came to shave her head, her son-in-law did the honors in her kitchen, with her family by her side. Her ex-husband shaved his head in solidarity, and Donna posted a photo of her bare scalp covered in lipstick kisses on Facebook.

After chemo came radiation. Treatments took place five days a week for six weeks and left her with just enough energy to get home from work and eat something before falling asleep. Though the months of chemo and radiation were grueling for Donna, perhaps the toughest part happened early on in her treatment: In July, Shawn found out she too carried the BRCA gene mutation. As a preventive measure, doctors recommended she have both ovaries and breasts removed.

As Shawn and her family prepared for the surgeries, they steeled themselves for yet another battle.

Shawn and Donna’s story continues in Family history, part 2: "OK, let’s do this": How a daughter overcame breast cancer and won the fight of her life.

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.

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