A 22-year breast cancer survivor, Donna Carbone of Bradford is making her mess into her message.
Carbone — who underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy, 30 days of radiation and a mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis in 1998 — encourages everyone she meets to live by four simple words: “Be your own advocate.”
“Living with this stuff (the side effects of the medications I took throughout my journey), it’s almost like the cure is worse than the disease,” the 66-year-old married mother of two daughters said.
“I learned that you should always do your homework about drugs and side effects before you start taking anything. ... Question everything, because mistakes get made.”
Carbone’s journey has been one of ups and downs, but she has developed a team of medical professionals, family and friends to help her navigate the best and worst of times.
Proof positive of those in Carbone’s corner: Each year, members of the Pentucket Kiwanis Club join other supporters on Donna’s Team for the Relay for Life fundraising event at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. In 2019, Carbone’s team raised $18,000 for the American Cancer Society, she said.
“I like to think the money we raised did a lot of research — and that’s a good thing,” Carbone said.
Research for new treatment is important to Carbone, who said things were a lot different when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“When you read about the treatment they (gave) you back then, you read there may be neurological side effects, but you just want to stay alive when it happens,” she said. “(My therapy routine) killed the cancer, thank goodness, but it had effects on other parts of my body that you don’t find out about until later on. I did what I had to — I had no choice.”
Four years after completing her chemotherapy treatment, Carbone developed lymphedema, or swelling, in her right arm. She said it was due to a disruption in her lymphatic system when lymph nodes were removed during her mastectomy.
“I’m right-handed, so it’s hard to do some things with my hand,” she said. “My arm is so heavy that sometimes I have to put it in a sling just to relieve the stress on my shoulder.”
Prescribed medications called bisphosphonates led Carbone to develop osteoporosis. After eight years on the drugs, she became one of the 2% of patients who suffer from femur fractures as an unintended side effect.
“My femur broke while I was standing at the bathroom sink brushing my teeth,” Carbone said, recalling the February 2019 incident. “I spent four months in rehab learning to walk with a walker ... after taking a prescription that was supposed to be a `wonder drug’ to increase bone density.”
Despite the setbacks, Carbone said what’s been amazing through the entire process is “you find out how many friends you have.”
“When I was in rehab, I had visitors every day for four months except for one. I can’t describe how lucky I felt,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything without the support I get from my husband, Peter. He semi-retired to help care for me. I always think that everyone knows this, because everyone knows what a good man he is. But he always manages to include me and my wheelchair in whatever is going on. He is remarkable.”
Through it all, Carbone continues to focus on the positives. She dotes on her two grandsons, Landon, 12, and Parker, 9, and enjoys sewing and cross-stitching.
She works diligently during physical therapy sessions to learn how to kneel and get back up again so that she can get back to work in her flower beds come spring.
Another thing she’s anxious to cross off her bucket list: Returning to workouts at Lawrence’s Rock Steady Boxing, which Carbone said helps refine her balance as a Parkinson’s patient.
She’ll do all those things — and more — with Donna’s Team rallying behind her.
“The two things I want to do are box and garden,” she said. “Those are my goals — it might take me a long time, but I’ll get there. I figure that with the team I have behind me, there’s no way I’m not going to meet my goals.”