Sally Donaldson

Sally Donaldson has dealt with her breast cancer very matter-of-factly. She believes that while crying doesn’t help, fighting surely does. “You need to be ready to roll with the punches,” she said.

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series profiling local cancer survivors, leading up to the Relay for Life today. The 12-hour event will kick off at 6 p.m. at Fairmont State’s Duvall-Rosier Field.)



“When was your last mammogram?”

That one question, asked by her doctor in August 1999, changed — and probably saved — Sally Donaldson’s life.

When she told him it had been three years, he quickly arranged one for her. Not liking what he saw, he ordered a biopsy just before Thanksgiving, and in early December, gave her some bad news.

She had ductal carcinoma in situ breast cancer — the tumor was contained to the breast duct

She didn’t cry.

“My doctor’s assistant was upset that I wasn’t all teary and scared. But I said people have been through this before. It’s not all that frightening. Years ago, yes, it did used to be a death sentence.

“Between the biopsy and getting the results, I asked the Almighty to let it be benign, please. But if that wasn’t in the works, to give me the strength to cope.

“And He did. I had a wonderful, warm feeling that whatever the case was, if it was aggressive and had spread, it would still be the way it was supposed to be and I would be well cared for.”

It had not spread to the lymph nodes.

“And that’s terribly important,” she said. “The doctor called me early one morning to give me that news. This was the best Christmas present I ever got.”

She’d often wondered how she’d handle a cancer diagnosis.

“Especially breast cancer. That’s a real tough thing for a woman. You read in magazines ... ‘She cried for a week. Her life was over.’

“For me, it was basically, ‘OK, let’s take care of it. Whatever has to be done, let’s get with it.’

“Tears wouldn’t help. They’d just drain my energy. I don’t cry easily. I get teary. But to just sit down and bawl, that’s not me.”

She also didn’t get angry.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why me?’ And I say, ‘Why not you? What makes you think you’re special?’”

In a way, Sally Donaldson was special because she’d already cheated death at the earliest age possible.

“They thought I was stillborn. But there was a spark of life in me. I fooled that doctor, didn’t I? He worked with me, and here I am.”

And she wasn’t scared.

She opted for a mastectomy over a lumpectomy on Dec. 17, the earliest date available.

“That part of my body had turned against me and I didn’t want it,” she said with a laugh.

“I knew I was in good hands and they’d do all they could for me. I didn’t have any real trouble. We even made a lot of jokes about it. My oldest son called, ‘Mom, do you list?’ I said, ‘No, the drain bottles keep me balanced.’”

The day before her chemo port was put in, her husband Tom was hospitalized for a double bypass. She’ll always appreciate the aide who took her straight to his room after getting her port.

“I opened my eyes, and I was at the foot of his bed. He looked much better than that morning. That was terrific. Seeing that he was well meant more than words.”

She had four chemo treatments, three weeks apart. She didn’t get sick but did lose her hair.

“Every bit of it.” She laughed. “I thought maybe that since red hair pops up in my family, I’d come back as a redhead. But it came back white.”

At first, she shunned events like Relay for Life.

“Dad died of leukemia. Two of his sisters died of breast cancer. My maternal grandmother had cervical cancer. Toss in a few friends and other relatives ... so, no, I didn’t want anything to with anything connected to cancer.”

But once she attended, she’s returned every year since. Releasing her balloon at the survivor’s lap means a lot to her.

“I say, ‘Thanks, Dad.’ He went through a clinical trial when he had leukemia. He was told that anything they learned at the trial would not help him. It might even speed up his death.

“But he went through that, and who knows what they learned? Every little bit helps the next person who has to have chemo. He was a hero.”

The Relay is a good evening, she said.

“It’s so touching to make that lap, with all the applauding. I want to stop and go hide and then cry. There’s so much love, so much laughter, so many tears.

“You see all these people who have been there, done that, with one form of cancer or another. Some are still battling. Some lose their battle. But I know there’s hope, always hope.

“I choose hope.”

To beat cancer, you have to fight, she said.

“Attitude is everything. It doesn’t make a difference in the cancer itself, but it does make a difference in your quality of life and for the people around you.

“If I moaned and groaned and carried on, I think Tom would boot me out the front door.”

“But not too quick,” he interjected with a laugh. “She has to take care of me.”

“Well ... in sickness and in health,” she agreed.

“You need to be ready to roll with the punches ... whatever life throws at you. Otherwise, you’re gonna quit. And if you quit, you’re not living.

“The treatments have changed so much even since I’ve had mine. And someday — I won’t see it — but some day, there will be a cure.

“There’s controversy about whether mammograms are even needed. But my cancer could not have been found without one. And if I’d missed another one, it would have been worse. So they’re very important.

“Mammograms are the best we’ve got, so do ’em.”

In other words: “When was your last mammogram?”

E-mail Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.

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