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Published on September 06, 2019

Donna Brooks:
Feisty and Fearless Against Breast Cancer

Like everyone who moves to a new city, Donna and Marvin Brooks had grand plans when they relocated to Kansas City from St. Louis two years ago. They moved to be closer to family and looked forward exploring their new city.

“But good ol’ cancer messed up our plan,” Donna said, grinning. The couple moved to the area in May, and Donna was diagnosed with stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer in August. A mammogram, sonogram and
biopsy at North Kansas City Hospital’s Women’s Center detected three masses.

“I wasn’t shocked because there’s a heavy presence of breast cancer on my dad’s side of the family,” Donna said of her initial reaction. “But, I didn’t understand what triple negative meant at the time. Usually, when they say ‘Your CT scan was negative’ or ‘Your blood work was negative,’ that’s a good thing. So, at first, I thought triple negative was a mild thing.”

Donna soon learned that her breast cancer was one of the most aggressive and difficult to treat.

“Triple-negative breast cancer lacks expression of the estrogen, progesterone
and HER2 receptors,” explained Deepti Satelli, MD, Donna’s oncologist. “It‘s one of the least common cancers, resulting in about 200,000 diagnoses each year.”

No Room for Fear

Knowing where to start was a bit of a challenge. Having just moved to the area, Donna wasn’t yet connected to a healthcare provider. That’s when Debbie Ball, BSN, RN, NKCH’s breast nurse navigator, stepped in.

“Debbie, my initial angel, led us all the way,” Donna recalled. Debbie helped Donna confirm her choice of a Meritas Health primary care provider, who then set up her first appointment with Surgeon Patrick E. McGregor, MD.

From diagnosis and treatment, to genetic testing, to help with managing side effects, Donna found that all the services she needed were on NKCH’s campus, just 10 minutes from her new home.

Donna’s matter-of-fact outlook on life helped her keep things in perspective from the start. “I wasn’t afraid of the cancer,” she said. “It is what it is. I got it, it’s early, let’s treat it and let’s move on.”

Donna had two options: a lumpectomy with chemotherapy and radiation, or a mastectomy. “I chose a lumpectomy because the cancer was stage 1,”
she explained. “Plus, the tumors were small, and only one breast was affected,” she added.

During surgery, Dr. McGregor removed 10 lymph nodes. Soon after, Donna began an aggressive chemotherapy regimen, followed by 20 weeks of radiation.

“The lack of the expression of the estrogen, progesterone and HER2 markers makes it difficult to find specific areas to target, so chemotherapy is the primary way to treat triple negative breast cancer,” Dr. Satelli explained. “With a lumpectomy, radiation is also part of the treatment protocol.”

No Hair, Don’t Care

“Losing my hair was the best part,” Donna laughed. “That was one less maintenance thing. But, you lose the hair on your head, your eyebrows, in your nose ... everywhere.”

Fortunately, other than losing her hair, Donna experienced minimal side effects from treatment. Fortunately, Donna experienced minimal side effects from treatment. “I expected to be sick,” she said. “Yet, I didn’t have nausea or vomiting. I did feel chilled, dizzy and lightheaded.”

To keep side effects to a minimum, she followed the preventive tips she found in NKCH’s cancer care book. With help from the hospital’s Cancer Rehab & Wellness Center, she learned how to successfully manage her mild case of lymphedema.

No Time for Negativity

As Donna went through treatment, she made it a point to avoid negativity, stay active and pray often. “When you are diagnosed with cancer, you can’t engage with negative people or circumstances,” she advised. “This is a time when you must be selfish and care for yourself.”

Her strong faith and a good family support system helped her stay positive. “If you believe in a higher power, pray to it,” she said. “If you don’t have family, find a person to talk with. Have a regular person and a person who has been through cancer because they will balance you out.”

Still, Donna admits she had her share of so-so days. “I had days when I had to lay down, so I did,” she recalled. “But, I got back up. If you lay around, your situation starts to consume you. So, I talked to myself. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘You woke up. You’re here. There are people out there worse off than you, so get it together.”

Donna kept her strength and spirits up by walking the halls in her senior living center. “I was on lockdown per se because I couldn’t be around sick people, so I walked inside,” she said. “At first, I couldn’t make it down the hall without being out of breath. But, I kept going. I walked every day until I was able to walk four laps at a time.”

She also continued the daily tasks of life: doing laundry, paying bills and going to her grandkids’ activities whenever she could.

“If you get into a slump, that’s OK,” Donna said. “But don’t stay there. Start walking, call somebody, talk to your higher power, go do something. You are supposed to beat this cancer. It’s not supposed to beat you.”

A New Normal

“My medical team was awesome,” Donna said of the care she received. “Everyone had a positive attitude and treated us with respect. No question was too small.”

With treatment behind her and a clean mammogram this past June, Donna is setting new goals. “I want to enjoy life with my grandbabies and my kids,”
she shared.

“I’m learning to accept my new normal,” she added. “I’m not accustomed to chemo brain and not being able to multi-task. Once I get this new normal down, I’ll be good to go. Actually, when I wake up every morning,
I’m good to go, so I’m good either way.”

Donna: Feisty and Fearless Against Breast Cancer (video)