by Donna Deegan
Chief Eternal Optimist. That’s the title under my name these days. When the director of my foundation told me we’d be printing business cards and asked if I’d like to be addressed as CEO, the first thought that came to my mind was, Only if I can be the Chief Eternal Optimist.
It’s far more descriptive of my position anyway. My wonderful staff does most of the work, and I’m the one who provides the outlook. I am paid not in dollars, but in the satisfaction that we are doing our little part to change the world in a positive way.
This positive outlook didn’t always come so naturally to me, but cancer can be a good teacher that way. I’ve survived it not once, but three times.
My experience with the disease led me to start The Donna Foundation in 2003 because I was heartbroken to learn that so many women with cancer were faced with choosing between paying their mortgages or paying their medical bills. If you don’t have insurance or Medicaid, and sometimes even if you do, the bills you’re left with can be astronomical. Add to that the fact that some women simply find themselves unable to work during chemo, and you can see what a burden it all becomes.
A Different Kind of News Broadcast
My cancer lesson began in 1999, when I first learned I had breast cancer. I was anchoring the evening news in my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., and struggling with how to share the news with my viewers. I don’t really have a problem with reporters who take cameras into their treatment rooms; I just wasn’t one of them. After a conversation with my news director, we reached a compromise. I would write an online journal, what we now call a blog, to keep viewers updated on my progress.
That’s when the letters, calls, and e-mails started to pour in. I heard from many people who were going through the same treatments, but having trouble making ends meet. They needed an advocate, and I was in a perfect position to understand their stress. The Donna Foundation was my way of using the big broadcast megaphone attached to my mouth to help. I hoped that by sharing my story, I would help other women become better advocates for themselves during their journeys with breast cancer.
This extends even into the relationships that we have with our doctors. In my book, The Good Fight, I wrote about an event that I have since shared with many women who have had similar circumstances. An event that, in my opinion, may have been entirely avoidable.
Like so many who undergo chemotherapy, I was faced with neutropenia. It’s a condition that arises when chemotherapy drugs wipe out both your cancer cells and your white blood cells, the ones that fight infection. My white blood count had hit statistical zero. My doctor told me to call if I had a fever that exceeded 100° F.
I was having dinner with a friend when she noticed something wasn’t right. “You don’t look so good, Sunshine,” she said. I didn’t feel so good either. She insisted on taking my temperature. It was 102° F, almost 103° F. I paged the doctor on call and was told to come to the hospital immediately. I told him I was between my evening broadcasts and that I still had a show to anchor. “Not tonight you don’t,” he said. “Your body is totally defenseless. If you have an infection and we don’t get it under control, you could die.”
I spent the entire week in the hospital with a fever, which approached 105° F at times. I was put under cooling blankets to control my fever, and in a desperate search to find the right antibiotic, I had several IVs. Finally, the doctors determined I had pneumonia. One of the drugs worked, and the fever came down. The entire episode was horrifying. I was frightened for my life, miserably sick for days, was billed for thousands of dollars in hospital charges, and worst of all, had to delay my chemo.
It took many weeks for my blood counts to return to a level my doctor would find acceptable to continue my treatment. That led to a mountain of doubt in my mind. Would the delay affect my outcome? Would the cancer come back? I found out later that there are drugs I could have taken that would have boosted my white blood cells before the chemo. I found out too late about the serious and common connection between a low white blood cell count and infection. I now urge women to make sure they ask their doctors about the use of those drugs. If I can keep even one woman from going through that terrible experience of pain and doubt, it would have been worthwhile.
The Race to Finish Breast Cancer
I’ll never know if the delay in chemo played a role, but my cancer did come back. Frankly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m one of those people who would tell you that cancer has changed my life in a positive way.
In 2008, just after my third diagnosis, the Foundation partnered with Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway and the Mayo Clinic to launch 26.2 With Donna. It’s the only marathon that sends 100 percent of its proceeds to support top breast cancer research and to help underserved women with breast cancer. We’ve raised more than $3 million dollars to, as we say, FINISH breast cancer. I ran that inaugural race three months after surgery and during chemo.
Each time I’ve dealt with cancer, it’s moved me forward in some way: as an advocate, as a wife and mother, and hopefully as a human. After my third diagnosis, which was a metastasis to my left lung, I made the very conscious decision to live life in a different way. I learned to meditate to still my mind, put better things in my body, and eventually left the very stressful news business to focus more on my work as a health advocate. Living life as a Chief Eternal Optimist is a choice: A choice to look through a lens of love rather than fear. I’ve been cancer-free now for seven years, but I really count those years one day at a time. I get up each morning feeling incredibly grateful that I’m still here. We should all do that.
July 28, 2014
Donna Deegan is the founder and president of The Donna Foundation, which funds the critical needs of underserved women with breast cancer. She is the author of two books, The Good Fight and Through Rose Colored Glasses: A Marathon from Fear to Love. She lives in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., with her husband, Tim.