A breast cancer survivor reflects on 21 years of advances since her diagnosis

June 12, 2020
Much has changed in the 21 years since Donna Zirkle’s physician found a lump during her annual breast exam.

The diagnostic mammogram that followed came back negative. Fortunately, Donna’s doctor didn’t stop there.

“Bless my doctor,” Donna said. “She called me back and said, ‘Donna, I know there’s a lump there. Would you please go get an ultrasound?’ I actually thought about not doing that, but I trusted her. So, I went for the ultrasound, and I saw it on the screen—a little bitty thing.”

Donna is one of a small number of patients — fewer than 10% — who receive a false negative from a mammogram. Her family physician sent her to see Cam Gabrielsen, then the breast surgeon at Hancock Health. Even Dr. Gabrielsen had his doubts about whether the 1.3cm tumor was cancerous.

“I had a lumpectomy,” Donna said. “I hadn’t signed off for a mastectomy, because they didn’t think it was going to be cancer.”

It was. And, three weeks later, she ended up having the mastectomy.

It turns out Donna’s cancer was aggressive and had already spread to her lymph nodes at the time of her diagnosis. Donna’s age and the aggressive nature of her cancer led her oncologist to recommend two rounds of chemo, one round of radiation, and medication that Donna took every day for a decade.

“Some of the nurses who did my chemo are still here at Hancock in oncology,” Donna said. “I remember them commenting, because I never had a wig. I was bald for nine months, but I would put my hat on with makeup. They said I was the poster child for chemo, because I always came in with such a happy face and a smile. They told me that my attitude probably helped me more than anything.”

A Greenfield native who married her high school sweetheart, Donna appreciates the personalized care she received at Hancock. She still keeps in touch with Sherry Lawrence, who continues to work as a Nurse Navigator—guiding patients through their cancer journey at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center.

“It’s just, it’s family,” she said. “They saved my life. They’re family.”

Though she considers herself a cancer survivor, Donna is careful to never say that she’s cancer-free.

“You’re never cancer-free with breast cancer,” she said. “It could come back at any time.” That’s why Donna continues to visit an oncologist annually, even though she’s a decade removed from her treatment.

“I do what they tell me to do,” she said. “I go in to get my annual test. It’s not something I’ve ever forgotten, but I try not to let it be the foremost thing in my mind like I did in those first few years. There are actually days that I don’t think about it.”

As far as advice for patients currently facing cancer, “Attitude means everything,” Donna said. “You have to trust them. You need a good, trusting relationship with your doctor. I found that. Today, if I would call over there and ask for Sherry, she would get on the phone and talk to me right away. They all remember. They don’t forget you, even though it’s been 21 years since treatment. They don’t forget you.”

Learn more about Sherry and the rest of the amazing team at Hancock Regional Hospital’s Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center on our website.

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