Donna Brooks Walls shares her journey through cancer

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Donna Brooks Walls of Manila is known for her smile and positive outlook on life. Even as she battled breast cancer she never lost her love of life.

She calls the last 15 years her journey through cancer.

Donna, a Manila native, was living and working in Hardy, her adopted town, when she discovered in 1999 she had a knot in her breast.

She had been a hair dresser for 42 years and loved her customers, her shop and her career.

Donna Walls and her puppy Charlie Joe. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

"I always wanted people who visited my shop to go out feeling better than they did when they arrived," she said. "I lived in Hardy for 20 years and loved it."

Donna was familiar with breast cancer as she had gone through the disease with her mother, Marge Brooks. Mrs. Brooks was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1970s.

When Donna found the knot in her breast she said in her heart she knew it was cancer.

"I didn't have insurance and when I looked into available help I discovered I didn't qualify," she said. "I wanted to move home to Manila to be closer to my family and I started making plans."

The next part of her story is something she would not recommend. She put off getting the knot checked for a year. Naturally she hoped it would go away but it did not. She encourages anyone who suspects they have cancer to go to the doctor immediately. It is also very important to get regular checkups for early detection.

"A couple of my friends and customers in Hardy encouraged me to contact Breast Care," Donna said. "Since I was not working, I was eligible and they probably saved my life. Breast Care immediately went to work. My cancer was Stage 3. Within four weeks I had a mastectomy. It was on Dec. 4, 2000. That is when my journey through cancer began."

Donna said everyone is different. Some people want to know every little detail but she never looked anything up on the internet and she never questioned her doctor.

"I knew I had cancer," she said. "Dr. Nixon has been wonderful. I always trusted him and knew he was going to do everything he could to help me battle the cancer."

She said after her first treatment her hair started to come out and she took the initiative and had a friend shave her head.

"My next door neighbor, Mrs. Ethel Chipman, came over while I was having my hair all shaved off and she just went on talking to me like it was no big deal and we talked about other things," she said. "I knew my hair would come back but just having her talk to me like she always did somehow made shaving my hair off a little easier."

She underwent six very strong chemotherapy treatments. She said she ate peanut butter and it helped her with the nausea.

"I never gave a thought I was going to die from breast cancer," she said. "People would look at me with sad eyes and I would promise them I would not die today. That became my slogan. I know everyone has to die some time but I would let my friends and family know I had no plans to die today."

She wants to tell everyone who is battling cancer not to stop living.

"Do what you can," Donna said. "I couldn't go back to the career I loved but my strength came from another source, a group of high school kids and co-workers at Manila High School. A friend suggested I substitute at school and I found I loved it."

She went from substituting to a full time aide position.

"I loved my kids and I know they loved me," she said. "I was cancer free for almost 10 years. I started having problems and was diagnosed with bone cancer. Like I said before, I never ask a lot of questions. My daughter is a nurse and I saw in her eyes it was not good when the doctor told me about the bone cancer. I had 10 radiation treatments and was told I still had a tumor and there was nothing they could do about it. I was still working at school and many of my students told me they were praying for me. I went back for another test, I was told the tumor (not the cancer) was gone. In my heart I know it was the prayers of my kids. I went door to door in each room thanking them."

She encourages people to keep a positive attitude when they are around friends or family members with cancer.

"We need positive, not negativity during our cancer journey," Donna said.

She is honored to share her story. She wants people to know they can still be a whole person even with a small part of their body missing.

"Don't feel sorry for us, treat us like you did before we had cancer," she said. "We should be very thankful for our town. There is so much kindness in this community we live in. The second round of cancer knocked me down hard for a time but my friend, Bob Rothfus, helped me get through."

Bob is 90 years old and lives in Hardy.

"Bob taught me how to slow down in life and take one day at a time," she said. "He drove me to the doctor and helped me get through the rehabilitation. There are times when we have to depend on our friends and family.

"The last 15 years has not been a sad journey. Sometimes I have to go into my own make-believe world but I still love life every day."

Donna loves gardening and working in her yard and has a new friend, Charlie Joe, her new puppy. Charlie Joe is a Bishon.

"We have bonded over the last months and she has been great therapy for me," Donna said.

According to her doctor, Donna will take the cancer pill for the rest of her life.

"I am 73 years old and I am hoping to be around for a long time," Donna said. "I have a lot of things I want to do. I love my little apartment and my little garden I named Little Shangri La. I have a ticket to go hear the Gaither's next month. Yes, I have a lot to do and it is important to keep a good sense of humor."

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