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Joni Ross Donley: A Picture of True Strength
Written By: Julia Brabant
Diagnosed: September 2017
Status: Presently Cancer-Free
Everyone handles tragic news differently, but the way Joni Ross Donley reacted in the days, weeks, months and years following her pancreatic cancer diagnosis paints a pretty good picture of what true strength is all about.
Sure; she could have scoured the internet for information about prognoses after hearing she had one of the most unforgiving forms of cancer that exists, but she made it a point not to do so. Sure; she could wallow in self-pity about getting dealt one of the harshest hands life has to offer, but she didn’t have time for that, either. Instead, she dubbed the entire ordeal her “Great Adventure,” and she’s more than happy to open up and share the good, the bad and the ugly about everything she experienced along the way.
It started, as it often does, with severe stomach and back pain, and when Joni visited her primary care doctor, he suspected an ulcer and began treating it as such. After several unsuccessful treatments and follow-up visits, she went to see Dr. Albert Amini, who collaborates with the Virginia C. Piper Cancer Center in September of 2017, and tests and an endoscopy revealed a malignant tumor that turned out to be Stage 2/3 pancreatic cancer.
Things moved quite swiftly after that. On a referral, Joni met Arizona doctor Dr. Erkut Borazanci, to find out about a pancreatic cancer research study. Within three weeks, she’d not only signed on with the research study, but had also begun the chemotherapy treatments she’d continue for the next six months. Upon completion, she began feeling more like herself and her tumor markers had gone down, so “Dr. B” took her case in front of a “tumor board,” or a group of physicians who share opinions and knowledge, to determine whether they could move forward with surgery on not one, not two, but three separate occasions.
The problem wasn’t that her tumor hadn’t shrunk sufficiently – it was that it was too close to her mesenteric vein, which performs a critical function by draining blood from the small intestine, so removing it posed a life-threatening risk. Because the tumor board ultimately deemed the surgery too risky, Joni moved forward with radiation instead. Several months later, though, and after many of her symptoms had returned, Dr. B’s nurse called and asked if she could send Joni’s records to Dr. Douglas B. Evans, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Following two more chemotherapy cycles, Dr. Evans decided to move forward with removing Joni’s tumor, and on her 69th birthday, Nov. 9, 2018, she underwent an intensive, eight-and-a-half-hour surgery to remove her pancreas, spleen, liver, small intestine, gall bladder and some of her lymph nodes and stomach. She spent 17 days in the hospital and additional time at Kathy’s House, a half-way house of sorts where patients can recover from serious illnesses and surgeries.
Now, back at home, she’s had some admittedly dark days, but she’s also finding new sources of support in addition to her own husband, son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren and top-notch team of doctors and nurses. She attended her first Seena Magowitz Foundation Golf Classic event in November of 2019, where she found strength in the words and faces of other survivors, one of whom told her something that particularly resonated after a long, difficult series of events.
“The real healing is in the first year,” said 25-year pancreatic cancer survivor Kay Kays, offering living proof that things could, and would, get easier. For Joni, that “first year” ended Nov. 9, 2019, when she celebrated one year cancer-free – and one more candle on her 70th birthday cake. A “Great Adventure” indeed.