“No news is good news” may be a cliché, but it describes Donna Weeden’s situation accurately.
When Journal Publishing began The Pink Project, an extensive month-long focus each October on breast cancer survivors and victims five years ago, Weeden was one of the first to share her story.
She was a cancer survivor not once, but twice, having been diagnosed with two different types over the years.
And at the time she talked about her battle with the illness, she was just starting a long course of chemotherapy.
Now, five years later, the Gazette caught up with her to learn how she is doing.
When asked what has happened since then, Weeded replied “Nothing has happened since my 2nd diagnosis in 2010.”
Of course a lot has happened in her life otherwise, but in terms of her illness, “nothing” is the best answer there is.
She remains vigilant, continues her checkups, advocates prevention and screening and helps other people who have had cancer diagnoses, but her health is good.
“I do take a pill every day,” she said, because her second cancer, Hormone Receptor Positive or HER2, is a type that can recur. There are still not enough long-term studies to provide a definitive answer about the treatment, she said.
Weeden is vice-president at BNA Bank and has worked in banking all her professional life.
She's a Pinedale native, the daughter of Dorman and Joyce Watson, who graduated from West Union. Her husband, Narshal, came from Ingomar, not too far across the Tallahatchie, and they have been married for 27 years. They have two daughters, Kelsey, 22, and Katie, 19.
Donna apparently knew banking is what she wanted to do when she still was in high school.
"I attended Ole Miss and got a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a specialty in Banking and Finance," she said. "I actually started working in the summer of 1981 when I was still in school."
One might argue that National Breast Cancer Awareness Month saved Weeden's life.
It was 17 and a half years ago that her cancer was first diagnosed.
She had no symptoms or any reason to suspect she may have had cancer. She was comparatively young to start having periodic mammograms.
"Most doctors start mammograms at age 40; I was 35," she said. "But my insurance covered a baseline mammogram and it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I think all the information that was out helped make me decide to go ahead and get a baseline mammogram."
That decision proved crucial because the mammogram revealed a one-centimeter tumor.
At first, the process did not go smoothly for Weeden. "I decided I needed to go back to Tupelo to my doctor, Dr Jack Kahlstorf, to get his opinion. Over the next few weeks there was so much confusion between lost files, misplaced films, and other problems that kept me going back a second and third time for additional tests before being referred to a surgeon," she said. "I knew God was already starting to work in my life when the radiologist, Dr Keith Lawrence, a friend I had gone to school with, told me that finding my tumor at this early stage was like finding a needle in a haystack."
"Dr Phil Mathis did a lumpectomy which was followed by radiation and chemotherapy over the next six months," she said. I had two small children at 4 years old and 10 months old but was able to work every day except the day of my chemotherapy treatments. After finishing the chemotherapy, I went early in the mornings for radiation over a period of six weeks and was at work by 9:30 each day. It was God's Grace that I was able to work and continue to care of my family and home during these months.”
Things looked good after the treatments and Weeden continued to go back for her annual checkups with no unusual results. "Dr Mathis moved to Corinth and after the tenth year, he turned me loose thinking I was cured," she said.
Then, the next April, she went back for her annual mammogram in at The Breast Care Center in Tupelo and, like the first one, ran into complications. "They kept calling me back into another room to do more tests and finally did a biopsy," she said.
"Two days later they called me back and confirmed it was cancer. It was in the same breast as before but much larger this time at two and one half centimeters," she said.
Because she had already undergone a series of radiation treatments, that was not an option. "You can't take radiation again because of the effect it has on the breast tissue," she said. "There was no choice; they would have to take the breast."
This was a possibility Weeden had considered.
"I always said if it came back they would take both breasts so I wouldn't have to deal with it again," she said. "I just couldn't see taking the chance. All I could think about was getting rid of the cancer in my body and being able to live."
"This time my surgeon was Dr. David Gilliland in Tupelo and my treatments were at BridgePoint. Dr. Julian Hill was my oncologist."
Also this time Weeden had to have a different type of chemotherapy and said it varies greatly with tumor size and cancer receptor types.
Another thing that had changed since her first experience was the concern of side-effects. "Now they have wonderful anti-nausea drugs.
She listed some of the drugs used in the treatments: Cytoxan, Adriamycin (called "The Red Devil" because of the red coloring and capable of life-threatening heart damage), Taxol, and Herceptin. Zofran and Emend were used for nausea, and Benadryl and the more-familiar Decadron were also used for cancer pre-treatments, she said.
At first she had to undergo the harsh treatments four times every three weeks. This caused her to be home-bound for four months and the doctor wanted her to stay out longer but cabin fever grew too strong.
After that treatment was over, she had to go every Monday for a treatment of Herceptin for 40 weeks. She finally finished with treatments about 15 months later. The last round of chemotherapy did not force her to stay at home from work but it did have some restrictions for her, “It sometimes causes a low white blood cell count, so I had to be really careful around people who were sick.”
"Going through this surgery and treatment keeps your family strong," she said. "But the number-one solution is keeping God first in your life. I had great family and friends praying for me. I honestly feel like people praying for me made a difference. I also try to keep a positive attitude."
She also worried about a sort of occasional mental fogginess known as "chemo brain." "It's a real thing; you can look it up," she said. "But it stands to reason that something strong enough to fight cancer could affect other parts of your body and memory as well."
Her job has led to her being something of a public advocate against cancer and she has participated in the Union County Relay for Life since it began.
"I've always been on the bank team or church team and was Relay treasurer for Union County for three years or more," she said.
"2010 was a special Relay for me," she added. "My friends at the bank dedicated their camp site at the Relay event in honor of me." The Relay Committee also gave her a special medal in honor of her fight.
It's easy to see why she is an integral part of Relay for Life.
"I am a fighter," she said. "I just got really mad at cancer and I decided that I am not giving in to it."
She also helps other people more directly when they ask for support.
“People call me and say they have been diagnosed,” she said. “A friend called a couple of months ago and asked about my decisions I made and whether I had any regrets. I told her that I have no regrets.”
Now healthy, Weeden advises everyone to follow her philosophy: “Live every day to the fullest and be as happy as I can be.”
“Every time you go to the doctor and get a good checkup you feel like you have a new lease on life,” she said. "The main thing it takes is Faith in God - a great family and great friends - and keeping a positive attitude."