- Cullman, Alabama

October 15, 2012

Cancer Survivor: Early detection saved my life

Tommy and Donna Barnett

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

CULLMAN — It was almost Christmas time. Donna Barnett, a treatment nurse at Cullman Health Care, and the administrator of the facility were busily preparing the holiday meal for the residents when Donna’s phone rang.

It was her doctor’s office, calling to tell her that she’d had an abnormal mammogram. They requested that she come back in for more tests. “I just sort of brushed it off at the time,” Donna recalled. “Several years before I’d had a scare which turned out to be fibroid cysts, so this didn’t really alarm me.”

Actually, although she was 53, this was only Donna’s second mammogram. Her healthcare provider had just instituted a wellness incentive program which prompted her to get this one.

When she went in for the second mammogram ,she confessed to being somewhat emotional with the technician. “But after that I just put it in the back of my mind over the holidays,” she said.

She got another phone call from the doctor’s office asking her to call, but before she had a chance, they called back. “Didn’t you get my message?” asked the concerned voice on the other end of the line.

Donna tried to placate the nurse, telling her that she had been busy and was going to call later in the week. “But you don’t understand,” the voice replied. “He wants you to see a surgeon — today.”

By 3 p.m. that Monday afternoon, Donna was undergoing a needle biopsy. The doctor called later saying that he didn’t think she had anything to worry about, but he was sending the sample off for further testing.

Friday afternoon when she got off work, Donna and her husband, Tommy, decided to stop by Piggly Wiggly to buy groceries before heading home. As they stood in front of the dairy case discussing their purchases, her phone rang.

It was the doctor’s office letting her know that three different pathologists had confirmed that the biopsy was malignant. “I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Donna remembered. “I’d lost my dad to cancer and all I could think of was that I wanted my mother.”

She left her groceries and went to the car. When Tommy got there she said, “Please, take me to my momma.”

“I wish it was me instead of you, I’m old, and I could take it,” said her 80-year-old mom later that afternoon. Soon her son would also be diagnosed with stage four bladder cancer.

Donna’s tumor was found at stage 0, which was a remarkable stroke of luck. “If it hadn’t been for that wellness incentive, I would never have had that mammogram, and it wouldn’t have been found so early,” said Donna. “I’ve been blessed.”

With that encouraging news, she made the decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy because there was also another cyst in her other breast. The surgery went well, but she has had complications from an extensive reconstruction procedure called a trans-flap, where part of her abdomen was used to replace tissue and skin.

Since her tumor was found so early, and her surgery was so successful, Donna wouldn’t have to undergo any chemotherapy treatments.

“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anyone who’d had breast cancer,” Donna reflected. “I am the only girl in my family, and there was no history of breast cancer.”

Another nurse told Donna about Bosom Buddies, a group of volunteers who visit and counsel with breast cancer patients. “I just wanted someone to talk to,” she said.

She called the number and spoke to someone and it wasn’t long at all until a little lady came bouncing up to her floor with bags of things Donna would need. The lady was Mary Dyer, and Donna credits her with being a tremendous help in her time of need.

“Not only for me, but Mary has been a big help to countless women over the years,” said Donna.

Now Donna is the captain of the Bosom Buddies Relay For Life team, helping to give back to others who have found themselves in this situation.

Donna credits her husband for giving her exemplary care during her recovery. Tommy even showed up at the hairdresser’s one day when she was there, just to watch and learn how to blow her hair dry for her.

The couple had been through a traumatic time even before Donna was diagnosed. Tommy went in for a routine hernia surgery only to find out that there were major problems with his heart.

“The anesthetist came out and told me that they couldn’t do the hernia surgery and that we needed to find a heart doctor,” said Donna.

Tommy had an aneurism and some blockage. He wound up having the aneurism removed and stents put in his heart.

“She took care of me when all that was going on,” said Tommy humbly. “Now it was my turn to take care of her. The ‘C’ word is something you never want to hear, but I tried to be positive,” he said.

He went with Donna to her doctor’s appointments, and gave her plenty of moral support.

Last spring the couple, who have been married for 34 years, were just recovering from all this stress and trauma in their lives. They were in bed, sound asleep. It was Mother’s Day, 2012, and dawn hadn’t even broken over the horizon when something buzzed loudly, waking them both. “Turn that alarm clock off!” Tommy growled sleepily.

“That’s not the clock, it’s Sunday,” Donna mumbled from beneath the covers.

Outside, it was thundering and lightning streaked through the sky. Tommy got up and smelled a strong odor of smoke. “Get up!” he yelled, “That’s the smoke alarm!”

Sure enough, when he threw opened their bedroom door, flames shot in. The house where the Barnett’s had lived for 26 years was already almost fully engulfed in flames.

There was an outside access from their bedroom, which probably saved their lives that day. They sat in their truck and watched as everything they owned went up in flames.

A neighbor called the fire department, but it was too late to save anything. “There was a jewelry box right by the door where we got out, but when you are in the middle of something like that, even though you always think you’ll grab something, you don’t, you just get out,” said Donna.

With all the things that have happened in their lives since Tommy’s surgery, the Barnett’s don’t take a single day for granted.

They were two of this year’s annual Life Inspiration Awards recipients, Donna for being a survivor, and Tommy for being a caregiver.

“We didn’t do it alone,” said Donna. “We had a wonderful support group in Bosom Buddies. They are an invaluable asset in Cullman County. They are here for people both physically and mentally.”

Now Donna makes it a point to go back for her regular checkups, and is emphatic about telling other women to have their mammograms done. “Early detection is what saved my life,” she said.