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Life Lessons from a Breast Cancer Survivor: Meet Dawn Porter

By Maggie Brown | October 1, 2015 | Careers & Culture, Employee Spotlights

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When you meet Healthcare program developer Dawn Porter for the first time, you’re drawn in by her easy laugh, her bright blue eyes, and her slightly irreverent sense of humor.

When you meet her, you don’t think “cancer.”

But Dawn is a breast cancer survivor. For the better part of a year, her life was a whirlwind of operating tables, IV drips of chemotherapy, and radiation machines.

The warning signs appeared in late 2009. “I’d lost 20 pounds and I could see this lump in my breast, way down near my rib,” she says. She already had her annual exam scheduled, so she showed the lump to her doctor then.

The Diagnosis

“My doctor didn’t think it was anything, but she knew I was anxious and sent me to UNC for a follow-up. What was interesting was that the person who performed the ultrasound also thought cancer was highly unlikely,” she says.

After all, Dawn was only 39, not quite yet in the recommended age range for yearly mammograms. She had no family history of breast cancer. When she got a phone call saying the lump was a highly aggressive triple negative tumor, she screamed.

Dawn says, “My first thought at the diagnosis was about my children … would I see them grow up? It was snowing outside – a very early snow, and they were so thrilled and happy, and all I heard over and over in my ear was, ‘Unfortunately, it’s cancer.’”

In some types of breast cancer, treatments can “attach” to the cancer cell to target it – but with triple negative, none of these treatments can attach, which makes treatment options limited. This type of cancer tends to be more aggressive and more often targets younger and African-American women, for reasons that are not yet clear.

Getting Through Treatment

In January 2010, Dawn had a lumpectomy (surgery to remove the lump plus a margin around it), followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy and 27 radiation treatments.

Enlisting her daughter’s help.

Dawn went through her journey with cancer the way she lives her life – with humor, gratitude, and a posse of loved ones by her side. She referred to her chemotherapy infusions as “spa infusions,” and thought of the powerful chemo drugs as “PacMan eating the bad cells, and an occasional cherry.”

She and a few of her close girlfriends made eight bracelets out of glass beads – she wore them on her wrist and took one off after each round of chemo. These friends – whom she lovingly refers to as her Creampuff Club – were by her side for each treatment, often creating a party-like atmosphere in the chemo unit.

After four months, she was done with chemo. She jokingly describes the after-effects of each treatment as equaling, “The worst hangover you’ve ever had, minus the headache, plus the sixth week of pregnancy. Squared.” And the soreness – “I’m talking soreness that feels like I competed in the Chatham County Bench Press contest and won by 3,000 reps,” she says.

Breast Cancer Family Impact

Her kids, Caroline and Glenn, were just 4 and 6 at the time of her diagnosis. She says, “We tried our best not to make the cancer a scary thing for them.” She let them cut her hair (which she briefly sported in a mohawk) before it fell out on its own. She made sure the tooth fairy came, even when she was in the aftermath of chemo treatments. She tried to make life as normal as possible.

She describes a winter day during chemo as, “Sitting at the kitchen table with the kids and two of their friends, sporting a mohawk, eating Goldfish, and talking about the chance of snow as if looking like Mr. T was as normal as having a ponytail.”

Race for the Cure, Dawn and family.

Dawn drew her strength from her husband, friends, co-workers, and neighbors of her close-knit Bynum community with helping her get through 2010.

She also credits the kindness of strangers, like the woman at Trader Joe’s who told her, during the midst of chemo, that she looked beautiful. Or the man walking down the beach that stopped her and told her about his mother who was a 15-year survivor. She had many such experiences that year.

She says, “It is truly the people that you meet, and that are sitting by you, that make something like this bearable. And of course the people you see when you walk in your door at home.”

Beyond Cancer

Dawn, now officially in survivor mode, exercises most every day (lots of family walks to the Haw River); she doesn’t eat processed food; and she does her best to keep stress out of her life. She meditates. She works on her art. She volunteers with the Girl Scouts and at her kids’ school. She “keeps her garden clean,” so to speak.

Dawn’s beautiful bracelets.

When Dawn marked the five year anniversary of her lumpectomy, she didn’t throw a party. She didn’t light a candle. She says, “I simply did a lot of self-reflection and no real celebration – the reason being for me – I was tired of giving the cancer any more energy or power or acknowledgement. It was something that happened. We got through it.”

She goes on to say, “I celebrate the things I’m grateful for, a true practice that I’m trying to repeat every day – writing or sharing at the dinner table the things for which I’m grateful.”

Some lasting advice from someone who looked death in the face, fought her best fight, and came out stronger than before, written in 2010 after her treatment:

Dare I say, though I would not have chosen it, life has quietly and loudly given me a path for which I believe I have become a better person. The world is full of fairies sending us messages … I have to call them fairies because I have a four year old in the house. You call them what you want …

“The fairies came in the form of random Tai Chi masters crossing my path, inviting me to practice; the stranger bringing me dinner with books and flowers; or the grocery store salesperson telling me what the world was waiting for me to finish this story – how did she know that I even had one? 

“This happens all around us all the time; we are just busy checking our phones as they dart by us. I’m working hard now not to get distracted by all those texts and to-do’s dressed up as necessities, and making sure that I see the sparkling fairy dust all around me.”

Words to live by.

Maybe tonight we can all go home, put down our smartphones, and reflect on what truly matters in our lives, whatever that may be for each of us.