Donna McKenna

Donna McKenna - profileAge: 32

Hometown: Kitchener

What school did you attend? Conestoga College

Do you work? I did babysit children before I got sick but once I was diagnosed I couldn’t continue.

What are your career goals? Before I had children of my own I worked with special needs children and adults. I think I would like to return to that but I would also like to explore working with fellow cancer survivors and fighters. I have a few years until my kids are in school full time and I would like to be home with them until then.

How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?

I was starting to feel really tired and thought it was just the flu. I was having difficulty walking up stairs and was getting really dizzy to the point of almost fainting. I had also noticed an excess of bruises, the most concerning of which were patches of pin-sized bruises. I had made and appointment to visit my family doctor but a few days before I developed a fever of 103.5 and was taken to the hospital by my mother. The emergency doctor had my blood tested and within half an hour made the diagnosis. The same day I went for a bone marrow biopsy to find the exact diagnosis. My white blood count was over 100. My haemoglobin and platelets were both very low which was causing the bruising and fatigue. Since I had been visiting my parents three hours away from home I had to be transferred back to home by ambulance. I began my induction chemo treatment three days later. After my induction chemo I was lucky enough to go into remission right away. However I remained in hospital for an extra month due to a myriad of complications. I suffered so much muscular atrophy from being is bed for so long I was confined to a wheelchair. As an outpatient I continued with weekly chemo treatments for two years.

What year was it? What was your age at the time? The year was 2007 and I was diagnosed the day I turned 30. Worst birthday present ever!

At what level of education were you at diagnosis? I was a college graduate in early childhood education

What was your diagnosis? Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed? I have to admit I was not surprised. I knew what the symptoms for leukemia were but I was still terrified. My first thought was “I can’t have cancer, I have two young kids to take care of and I’m not done yet!”

How did your family react?

My family was probably more shocked than I was because I hadn’t really talked to anyone about my symptoms. I had assumed it was the flu and things progressed so fast it was the last thought anyone had. My husband was devastated and angry. Everything I use to do fell on his shoulders and he essentially became a single parent. We have two young children. At the time my daughter was only one so she didn’t really know what was going on. The one major change in her was that she clung to my husband. My son was three and understood that I was sick and was very angry that I wasn’t home for such a long time. When I did finally get home I was a very different person. I was confined to a wheelchair and not capable of caring for him or playing him like I use to. He reacted badly, lashing out at anyone and throwing temper tantrums. He also had a bit of a setback with potty training. My parents live three hours away from me but travelled down and stayed with us during the week to look after the kids so that my husband could continue to work

How did your friends react? Were you treated any different? As it turns out, I didn’t have many friends. My closest friend only came to see me in the hospital twice over three months. Once I got home she came a few times but after that didn’t bother. As for my other friends I saw them once or twice while I was in the hospital but that was about it. I ended up having only one friend who stuck by me through the whole mess.

What did your treatment consist of?

For chemotherapy I was given the Dana-Farber Consortium Protocol that was originally designed to treat children with ALL. The dosages were changed according to my weight. For my induction chemo I was on prednisone, vincristine, doxorubicin, methotrexate, leucovorin, l’asparaginase, allopurinol+septra. I also had chemo injected directly into my spinal cord every 18 weeks. Once my white count reached zero I continued only on vincristine and doxorubicin and had 6-mp added. I had 10 days of radiation to my brain. I then began 30 weeks of “intensification” as an outpatient. This consisted of vincristine, doxorubicin, dexamethasone, 6-mp, methotrexate and l-asparaginase. I then continued on with vincristine, l-asparaginase, 6-mp and methotrexate until the two year anniversary of remission. I also had numerous blood and platelet transfusions because of low blood counts.

Physically I was in really bad shape. I had lost 60 lbs in hospital and my ability to walk more than a few feet. I gained a little strength once I was home but not enough to function without a wheelchair. I was extremely tired and slept a lot. During my induction chemo I had mouth sores so bad I was on a liquid diet. I had contracted a yeast infection on my lung, liver, and spleen, fifths disease, a bleeding ulcer, and a few mystery illnesses. I had one dangerous bout with low blood pressure that almost landed me back in the hospital. Now for the emotional part. Surprisingly it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I don’t remember a whole lot of the first month but as for the rest of it my parents and husband were great supports. I also found great comfort with the hospital chaplain since my own minister never bothered with me. The chaplain visited me almost every third week I was in for chemo and was available whenever I needed an extra boost of faith. Other than that, I did my best to simply look ahead. I never doubted that I would survive because that just wasn’t an option for me. My kids needed me. Of course I did have my pity party moments and days but when you are fighting cancer nothing is easy.

In which Hospital were you treated? I was treated at Grand River Regional Cancer Center

What is your current medical status? Currently I am in remission. It will be three years on July 4.

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?

Physically I am continuing my exercise program to gain back my physical abilities. I am able to walk farther every day but I miss running and playing hard with my kids. I now walk with a limp that may not go away. I have gained some weight back but I really don’t want all of it back! Emotionally I feel like I’m a stronger person but I do harbour a lot of bad feelings towards those who turned their backs on me. This has been a very lonely journey for me and physical condition only perpetuated that. Now that I’m getting stronger though, I am finding new friends who have been through the same battle. I think my spirituality has gotten much stronger. When I felt alone I turned to God and found peace in Him.

What is the toughest part of your challenge? The toughest part is not being able to do everything I use to. I feel like my kids are missing out on a lot because of it.

What was the best part about having your challenge? The people I met. My doctors, nurses and caregivers were outstanding. They proved that there are truly angels among us.

What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick? This one is easy! My kids and my husband.

What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience? Life is too short. I know it’s typical but it’s true. I’ve also learned to cherish every little detail. I’ve missed so much with my kids I don’t want to miss any more.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now?  How have they changed since before your diagnosis? I’m still angry that I had to do this at all but I’m proud at how I’ve come through it all. If it were to come back I don’t think I would be as terrified. I’ve done it once and I can do it again.

What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours? I don’t think there really are any. ALL comes on fast and aggressive and there is no known cause.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge? None at all.

If you did not attend a support group, why? At the beginning I was too sick to even think about it and by the time I was well enough there were none for people my age. The only one was for breast cancer survivors.

Would you if one had been available? Absolutely!

Do you think attending one would have helped you? Yes! I wouldn’t have had to be so alone and I might have had some fun too!

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? I found the group on facebook and I had a friend attend one of the retreats.

What are your thoughts on Young Adult Cancer Canada? I really wish there was some kind of group outings or meetings to go to. Somewhere we could go to gripe, cry, and support each other in person.