Manila cancer survivor enjoys life

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Donna Walls of Manila, known as "Mrs. Donna" by the students at Manila High School, is a breast cancer survivor. She works as a paraprofessional in the high school and loves the kids she works with every day.

Donna Walls enjoys working in her yard, but when the work is done she enjoys spending time outside enjoying it. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

Walls spent 42 years as a hair dresser and enjoyed doing hair. More than the doing hair, she enjoyed the association with her customers and co-workers.

She and her husband, Don, were living in Hardy and made the decision in 1999 to move to Manila. Mrs. Walls was raised in Manila and wanted to move closer to her family.

"I began to suspect I had breast cancer about a year before we left Hardy but I didn't tell my family," she said. "I had always been healthy. My husband and I were both self-employed and we did not have insurance. The Ozarks is a beautiful place to live but it is hard to make a living there. I had insurance for years and never used it. The rates continued to get higher and higher and I dropped it. Three months later I thought I might have breast cancer.

Walls said she had never worried about her health and had never done a self-check breast examination.

"A lady was giving classes in the shop I was working in on how to fit ladies for prosthesis after mastectomies," Walls said. "The instructor was showing us how to do breast self-examinations and what to look for. I began to notice where my arm brushed against my breast as I was doing hair, a spot about the size of a small BB would get sore. I didn't feel sick and it was easy to tell myself it was nothing to worry about, but really I think I knew."

In December 2000 she discovered she had breast cancer.

"I would not advise anyone to put it off like I did," Walls said. "I had two friends I had told about my suspicions and they probably saved my life. They told me about Breast Care, an agency to help working people who do not have insurance coverage. I qualified and within three weeks I underwent a mastectomy. I really was not scared. The doctors told me they would do a biopsy and if it was malignant they would wake me up and allow me to decide how I wanted to proceed. I told them my decision had already been made and if it was cancer to go ahead and take the breast off. In my heart I knew it was cancer and I was not surprised when I woke up.

"They let me come home the next day since my daughter, Holly Jackson, is a nurse and would be there to take care of me for a few days. I had two drain tubes and felt really bad when I woke up that first morning at home. When my daughter told me it was time for a shower, I thought surely not. Don't think just because you have a family member as a nurse you can slide by. At the time I was not happy about it but I am glad she was strong enough to make me get back up and get going."

After a week, Walls found out her lymphoid tests came back more malignant than the doctors expected.

"That was the only time I cried," Walls said. "I really thought I would have the surgery, it would be okay and I would be fine."

She started chemotherapy. Again she said she was never afraid of the treatments.

"Unlike some people who want to know and do research, I just left it up to my doctors," she said. "I know we all will die of something but it never crossed my mind I would die from breast cancer."

She underwent eight of the strongest chemo treatments available.

"I was told after my first chemo treatment I would lose my hair," she said. "I had worked with hair 40 years and my hair just wasn't a big deal to me. My hair started coming out and I decided I would get ahead of the treatments. I called a friend of mine and met her on my carport with my clippers in hand. I asked her to shave my head. I think watching my hair being shaved was harder on my husband than me. I decided it would be easier for me to take it off quickly than watch it fall out a little at a time. While my friend was shaving my head my next door neighbor, Granny Chipman, came over. She talked to us through the whole process and never once asked what we were doing or why we were shaving my head. I think it took all of our minds off the task at hand and we even were able to laugh together while my head was getting shaved."

Walls turned into a cap person. A friend had given her some caps and she decorated them to suit herself. She admits to liking "gaudy" things and some of them were really cute. She had wigs, scarves, turbans, and even indulged in what she calls her "Tina Turner" wig.

Even though her hair has come back, she has kept her sense of humor and still wears her Tina Turner wig occasionally to work.

"I do it mostly to aggravate my boss (Principal Pam Chipman) in a fun way," Walls said. "She lets me know how much she dislikes that wig every time I wear it. You have to be able to laugh in any situation."

Her advise to others undergoing treatments is to do what is comfortable for each individual whether it is wigs, hats, or scarves.

"I was fortunate through my treatments to be able to eat," she said. "All of my life I have thought if you eat, you will feel better. With the help of nausea medicine, I was able to eat a lot of peanut butter and toast."

Walls said she had a lot of support from her family and friends.

"I didn't always listen to them like maybe I should have but they were wonderful and supported me," she said. "I didn't want to put my plans on hold because of treatments. Like I said, even when I felt really bad, I always held on to the hope things would get better and I had things to do.

"After surgery I could not go back to work as a hair dresser. During my treatments my granddaughter, Cassie, came by every afternoon and visited when she got out of school. One day she was sitting beside me with her arm around me and suggested I apply at the school as a substitute teacher. She told me I would be good at it. I took her advice. With no hair of my own, I went to the school and filled out the paperwork to substitute teach.

"It turned out to be the best thing for me. I found I loved working with the young people. I think the reason I'm still here is to help the high school kids."

She went from substitute teaching to her present position of full time teacher's aide.

She has worked at the school for eight years and said the kids are like her own. She hopes to be there until she is at least 70 years old.

"I have always shared with the kids that I am a cancer survivor," she said. "I want them to know they will never be any less a person because they have a missing body part. Sometimes when a student has lost a loved one to cancer and comes to talk to me, I tell them truthfully how I was not afraid to die. I can also share hope if they have loved ones diagnosed with cancer by telling my own story.

"I think sometimes we as cancer survivors feel guilty because we survive when we hear of someone who loses their battle to cancer. The survival guilt makes me wonder why me and not them. I have to go back and remember the words from my Grandpa, 'Don't question God.'"

Walls always loved the outside and yard work. She did not let cancer stop her from buying the house she wanted and creating the yard she loves.

"You can have your own paradise with a little imagination and a lot of work," she said. "I have always loved life and can find the beauty of a tree to be breathtaking. You don't have to have a lot of money."

Walls said she never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her because she had cancer.

"I think once you have cancer, every little hurt is scary," she said. "I had to realize the older I get, the more hurts I am going to have and it has nothing to do with the breast cancer. I am undergoing physical therapy now for my back. The therapists have helped me. Through the process for my back, my arm, which was weakened from surgery, is getting stronger. The older you get, the more body parts you discover you have."

Walls has two grown granddaughters, one great-grandson and will have two more great-grandchildren soon.

"Life is great and I hope to have all three of them in the swimming pool with me this time next year," she said.

"In today's world we have a lot of medicine and knowledge out there," she said. "I want to tell anyone diagnosed with cancer to not give up. I didn't dream there was help for working people but Breast Care was there for me. I could not have been treated any better or different if I had all of the insurance in the world or was the President's wife. I am thankful someone cared enough to encourage me to make the initial phone call."

It has been eight years since her original surgery. After treatments, she took pills for five years.

She is glad to be a cancer survivor and does her best to give back to others helping when and where she can.

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  • I read the article about Donna Walls cancer. I knew Donna years ago, a fun loving, happy go lucky gal! I, too had cancer, mine was lung cancer and I also told the surgeon to do what he "had" to do to keep me alive! I was very fortunate, caught the cancer early stage, had right upper lobe removed and didn't have to have chemo or radiation! How lucky am I? This was well over 11 years ago, I am still alive and my Dr.s tell me I am very healthy. Will think of Donna often now, seems we still have things in common!

    -- Posted by Ann Berry Green on Sun, Aug 3, 2008, at 4:06 AM
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