In 2015, 44-year-old HEATHER DONOHUE was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and bones from the beginning of treatment. Doctors told her that she could live for a number of years, but at some point it would be fatal.
“While I continue to take treatments to fight for my life, it is not something I have ever beaten. This is my new daily reality, as well as the reality for the thousands of other people who have metastatic breast cancer,” says Heather.
After five months of chemotherapy, Heather went into borderline remission for eight months until August 2016 when doctors discovered two masses on her ovaries. Cancer had also reappeared in her bones. Following a hysterectomy, the subsequent biopsy of those masses showed they were a result of the breast cancer cells metastasizing to her ovaries.
“That was actually a relief, since a number of people who have breast cancer also develop ovarian cancer. In my case, with the cancer cells all being from the same origin of breast cancer, it made the treatment easier to plan,” Heather says.
In the summer of 2017, Heather’s cancer became unstable again, and the metastatic areas began spreading through her bones and moved into her liver. While many would fold under the devastating circumstances, Heather continues to fight.
This mother and grandmother hasn’t skipped a beat. If she wasn’t taking chemotherapy every few weeks, it would be hard to tell she was sick at all. Except for surgery and a bout of bronchitis, Heather hasn’t missed a day of work as a nurse paramedic for emergency helicopter flights. She continues her normal twice-weekly 24-hour shifts, saying, “I love what I do, and I love staying strong in order to continue my career.”
She also maintains a rigorous workout routine. “Some days I feel exhausted and want to lie down, but exercise has always given me more energy and helps me stay physically strong,” she says. Heather has been active since she was young, playing sports like soccer, softball, and basketball. She later got into weightlifting and running in high school before joining the United States Marines.
After finishing nursing school in 2009, Heather’s daughter asked her mother to join her in running the Nashville Half Marathon to raise money for St. Jude. Heather continued that for several years and ran other half marathons and 10K races, but that came to a halt with her diagnosis in 2015.
“My doctor told me I could continue running, but there was a chance of getting compression
fractures, so I decided not to risk it and took up biking,” Heather says.
Today, she does a combination of yoga, hiking, walking, and cycling. She loves any outdoor activity and says the fresh air and sunshine helps with any kind of disease, giving her much-needed endorphins.
While she admits to having a strong sweet tooth, Heather also sticks to a diet provided by a nutritionist at her cancer clinic. About two thirds of it is plant-based, and she stays away from red meat and pork. She eats a lot of vegetables, nuts, fruit, fish, and poultry. By eating better, she feels better—although there’s an occasional cheat meal or treat.
“Eating well and exercise won’t make my cancer go away, but it will make me stronger to fight against it.”
Heather is a volunteer for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, an organization that encourages those fighting breast cancer to stay strong and active and to remind them their lives are much more than their diagnoses. She is attending the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Conference: Sharing Wisdom, Sharing Strength on October 6-8 at the Peabody Memphis. For more information, visit lbbc.org.
By Christin Yates. Photo by Tindall Stephens.