“If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger” is a mantra that Donna Holder learned well after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. She was in her early 60s at the time.
Holder felt a “suspicious” lump that led to a mammogram and biopsy showing it was cancer. She said her mastectomy and the chemotherapy treatments that followed made her a stronger person than she ever thought possible. It also brought her even closer to her family, especially her daughter Denise Andersen, and to her friends and her faith.
“Cancer was pretty rampant on my dad’s side of the family and my mother’s two sisters both had it, too,” said Holder. “Though I was kind of watching for it, I was still kind of shocked but, at the same time, not surprised.”
At that time it wasn’t common procedure to remove both breasts, so she had only one removed. She said chemo was primitive at best, compared to the services offered today and was administered in the emergency room. Support was available but limited.
“They just put us in one of those cold rooms,” she said. “Thank goodness my daughter was there to support me. It meant so much to me that she was there with me. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without her.”
“Cancer changes you,” said Andersen. “It shows you that someone cares that you are alive.”
Andersen said she wanted to help but felt helpless.
“Anytime a loved one is in that much discomfort and pain you feel helpless,” she said. “The thing we discovered later was that it didn’t necessarily bring us any closer together, because we were always close, but it did reaffirm the fact that I would always be there for her and that, if I could have taken away any of her discomfort, I would have.”
Andersen said she saw her mother struggle to feel “whole” again after losing not only a part of her body but her hair and vitality during her chemotherapy treatments.
“My mother has always been a beautiful woman. She’s always had a beautiful head of hair and I think losing her hair was devastating to her and losing a breast was like losing a part of her,” said Andersen.
Holder joined a cancer support group, at first for herself but she continued being active in the group to support others. Through the group, she and others distributed turbans, wigs and prosthetic devices to others battling cancer.
“We wanted to show others they could still look pretty and feel whole again,” she said.
She recounted a story about wearing a wig to work to cover her bald head. As her hair gradually grew back, she wanted to stop wearing the wig but was too embarrassed to have the shortest hair in the office. She said she asked a co-worker to cut his military-style hair even shorter than hers so she could dispense with the wig. She said her big “reveal” at work helped her to begin to finally find some humor in the situation.
Holder and her daughter Denise have always been close. Their experience dealing with cancer has brought them even closer.
“It’s kind of a new beginning once you get over that hump,” said Andersen. “Actually it’s more like getting over a mountain, so being together takes on a special emphasis, and we value our time together. The roles of mother and daughter have changed many times for us in this lifetime. It all depends on how strong we are at the time.”
Andersen said she and her mother have taken many trips together in order to enjoy quality time with one another.
“Once you’ve gone through this kind of near death experience then those moments together and experiences together take on more significance,” said Andersen.
The two took a trip to Ireland four years ago. Andersen said she had no idea her mother, who is of Irish descent, longed to see Ireland.
“When Mom and I took our trip to Ireland together four years ago, it was a very special time for us,” said Anderson. “This is time we spent together that can never be taken away from us.”
“I found out that things come and go but your family and your friends are always important,” said Holder.
Andersen said she feels like there has been a lot of progress not only in cancer treatment but also in raising awareness since those days.
“There have been so many changes in that relatively short period of time, especially in terms of educating the public. I think the Relay for Life event in itself has done a lot in that respect.”
Holder, who lives in Cody, will join Andersen and others to walk for the North Big Horn Senior Center’s relay team.
The two plan to take more trips together, including an upcoming trip where they will be “leaf leaping” in October to see the fall colors on the east coast.
Editor’s note: The annual Relay for Life event will take place in Cowley this year on Saturday, Aug. 9.
By Patti Carpenter