My Story by Donna Marie Nowak

I am a survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease Stage IIIB. Prior to my diagnosis in June 1989, I had been ill for a very long time. At age 28, I developed a persistent cough and since I did not smoke, drink or do any drugs — in fact, I was mainly macrobiotic, my cough did not greatly concern me. Doctors told me I had post-nasal drip. By the end of the year, my nails had turned purple and I inexplicably developed a bad case of acne when I had never had skin problems as a teenager. Tests proved inconclusive and when my symptoms worsened and included night sweats, joint pain, and high fevers, I became accustomed to being ill. Maybe it was just a bad case of denial, but my attempts for a diagnosis proved futile, so I began to “go on” with my life in spite of illness. It became difficult for me to stand for more than a few minutes and breathing was painful and strained.

I flew out to San Francisco, thinking the change from New York City would help my lingering flu. Within a few days, my symptoms accelerated. I was unable to stand up in the shower and I would spend six to seven hours every morning visualizing before I was able to get up from bed. When I flew back home, I went to my parents who took me to the family doctor. I was hospitalized that day and months later after extensive tests (including bone marrow biopsies, liver biopsies, and blood gases) I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. My first reaction was distress and tears, but after that, I assumed a very positive attitude, because my body was so weak, I could not afford to further compromise my immune system. Somewhere along the line, I learned an important fact: The body wants to survive and will instinctively find resources to cope with the illness. This is contrary to the initial feeling I had that my body had somehow betrayed me. I began doing things to distract myself and keep a positive focus almost by instinct and my family and friends rallied around me as well.

I went through seven months of intensive chemotherapy in which time I lost my hair and experienced bloating, intense vomiting and sleep loss. I was extremely underweight and emaciated, so it was a struggle to reach the 100 pound mark although I am 5’6. It was a very dramatic change in lifestyle for me — I had been a trained dancer and suddenly it was a struggle to walk, but losing everything put me in touch with subtler miracles. My lifetime goal was to be a great artist and create a masterpiece, but one day when I finally was able to leave my house and feel the sun on my face again, I felt such power in my being — I began to see the life force as the masterpiece. I felt I was reexperiencing the world and seeing my connection to and part in a grand scheme.

One of the greatest things I learned from being ill is that cancer is not a death sentence. It is possible to enjoy and celebrate your life, even when you are compromised by illness, and it is possible to defeat illness. Most important, being ill taught me how precious living is. It’s the greatest miracle of all and it is ours to savor each and every day.

This CancerGuide Page By Donna Marie Nowak. © Donna Marie Nowak
Page Created: 1998, Last Updated: Apr 18, 1998