Dawn Cavanaugh



I made it! I beat cancer twice!

I am a 38-year-old single mother with a six-year-old daughter. I found a lump in my right breast in November 2002, while visiting family in Hawaii over the Thanksgiving holiday. I immediately called my mother into the room to check it out and we agreed that I should see a doctor when I got home. My doctor thought it was just a cyst, but she had me get a mammogram and an ultrasound just to be sure.

That’s when it all started. I was told to see a surgeon because it was not a cyst. The surgeon scheduled me for a lumpectomy because the lump was increasing in size. The next week, when I returned to my surgeon’s office, I got the horrible news that I had breast cancer. I had gone to her office by myself, and at the time I felt so alone—I didn’t know what to do, what to think. I called my mom to tell her the devastating news. All I could think was, “Am I going to die?”

The surgery
On April 18, 2003, I had a right mastectomy and immediately started my reconstruction. I had a port implanted, and in May I began chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for six months.

I experienced every symptom in the book throughout my chemotherapy treatment. I became dehydrated after the first session and was in the hospital’s CCU for three days. All of my hair fell out on my last day in the hospital. My friends chipped in and bought me a wig. Every week I had to have blood drawn, which is not fun when you’re terrified of needles! I also had Procrit shots every week and Neulasta shots after every chemo session to keep my blood count up.

In August, about halfway through my chemo treatments, I started having a lot of abdominal pain. We thought it was due to the chemo, but it kept getting worse and worse. The pain persisted even though I was taking painkillers every three hours. I had two colonoscopies that were inconclusive.

I was so relieved when I finished my chemotherapy on November 6, 2003, and had my final reconstruction surgery on December 5, 2003. But the abdominal pain continued to get worse, so on January 5, 2004, I had a third colonoscopy. Two polyps were found but there was no cancer…I was very relieved. However, less than a week later my doctor called me (once again I was alone) and told me I had colon cancer. All I could do was cry.

Devastating news
My surgeon scheduled me for surgery immediately—on January 15, 2004. I expected to wake up and hear, “We got it all out; you’re going to be fine and you’re cured.” But, that’s not what I was told—I was told it was very bad. I only remember turning to my doctor, who was crying herself, and asking, “Am I going to die?” The answer was “Yes.”

I had stage IV colon cancer and was given six to 12 months to live. It had perforated the colon and spread, soone-quarterof my colon was removed in addition to part of my stomach wall, part of my small intestine, and part of my bladder. I also had a hysterectomy. All I could think about was my five-year-old daughter (she turned six on June 11, 2004), and how I wasn’t going to see her grow up. That was a feeling I cannot explain—it’s something I never want to feel again.

On my fifth day in the hospital, my surgeon came into my room with the pathology report—finally. She smiled and said, “You have stage IV cancer, but everything else we thought was cancer, WAS NOT!” I couldn’t believe it! I screamed and cried and once again my doctor cried with me. But this time we cried tears of joy!

What they had thought was cancer was actually something my organs had built up to defend themselves against the cancer. I had more than 30 lymph nodes removed and not one of them was positive. I did end up with a colostomy for six months, and I had to have three more months of chemo, which again was horrible. But it’s been nine months now and I’m still here. I’m going to be fine. I had the colostomy reversed on June 29, 2004, and my surgeon (my savior) said there were NO signs of cancer at all. There was nothing left in there to even biopsy!

Looking to the future
I just went for my follow-up mammogram two weeks ago and was nervous as I awaited the results. It was normal and those results now hang on my refrigerator. I really have survived all of this and I am going to see my daughter Ashley grow up!

I’m writing this because I know how hard it is to hear you have cancer, but I also know you can beat it. I believe a positive attitude and a lot of prayer is the key. Going through the chemotherapy is so hard and sometimes you want to give up, but don’t! I still have a hard time believing what all I went through, but I am a survivor and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I had the strength to face my cancer, fight it and beat it.

My plan for when I had completed my treatment and surgeries was to volunteer with the American Cancer Society. I really want to help others who are going through this horrible ordeal, and I believe my personal experience will help me help others. And my first step in doing that is by telling my story.

Last year I had friends and family walking in my honor in Phoenix and Hawaii. This year I’ll be walking with them.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.