Monday , 28 May 2018

McKinney Teacher Focuses on Students and Family While Fighting Rare Cancer

By Angie Bado, TSB Publisher

The ping of my computer meant I had another email arriving in my inbox, begging to be opened. This particular, seemingly innocuous, email was the beginning of what would become the toughest interview I’ve had to do to date. 

When I opened it, the subject line of the email said “MISD Teacher Charity Golf Tournament at Oak Hollow.” Of course, I was interested, particularly after reading the body of the email. MISD teacher Mary Lorenson was inquiring about publicity for a golf tournament that she had organized in just a few weeks time in order to help her friend and fellow teacher Donna Jones. Jones, who teaches fourth-grade math and science at McNeil Elementary School in McKinney. Jones, who just turned 49 in October, is fighting for her life, battling a rare form of cancer that appears to be untreatable.  

Yes, McKinney resident, teacher, wife, and mom to two young children, Donna Jones has been coping with the dreaded “C” for the past two and a half years. Her nightmare began in January of 2010 when she fell and broke her leg in four places, shattering her tibia. Following surgery to put her leg back together, Jones developed a MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) staph infection, which required hospitalization for three weeks. While there, Jones developed two blood clots in her right lung, and, if that wasn’t enough to deal with, during her hospital stay while dealing with her PICC line, she felt a mass in her left breast. Having had a mammogram just months deadlier Jones thought the mass to be the scar tissue that had been discovered at that time. 

Jones said, “I asked the doctor to do a sonogram and a biopsy while I was already in the hospital, but was told it had to be done as an outpatient procedure, so I had to wait another week to get out of the hospital before I could go have the procedure done. I was told I had a rare form of cancer, triple negative cancer.”

Unfortunately, triple negative cancer lacks the three “receptors” known to fuel most breast cancers: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The most successful treatments for breast cancer target these receptors.

“I have gone through six different combinations of chemotherapy and through them all the cancer has grown,” Jones said. “By December of last year, the doctors told me to get my affairs in order.”

But Jones didn’t give up. She decided to pursue treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She endured three months of excruciating chemotherapy, which consisted of five to six hours of in hospital treatment followed by 14 days of oral chemotherapy treatment, then one week off. 

“The chemotherapy I had at MD Anderson for three months was the hardest ever,” Jones said. 

Despite the aggressive treatment, the cancer advanced. One tumor, Jones said, grew from one millimeter to the size of a golf ball and invaded her lymph system. This past April Jones had the tumors removed and moved back to Houston for two and a half months to receive daily radiation treatment. On the June 1, her scans came back clean and Jones was told there was no evidence of the disease. Jones was relieved. 

“I was able to take my kids, Caitlin, 10, and Cameron, 8, to Disney World this summer and enjoy it, thinking I was in remission” Jones said. 

But her relief was short lived, as a nagging cough that kept getting worse drove Jones back to the doctor. Another CT scan of her lungs uncovered cancer nodules in both lungs and in the lymph nodes behind her sternum. Doctors also found that the disease had spread to her liver. 

Back at the Oncology Center, Jones was told there was one more type of chemotherapy to try and she signed on, but after a month and a half, her pain level was continuing to increase. Her doctor gently told her that in all honesty there would be less than a 10 percent chance that the treatment would be effective – it was time to get her affairs in order. Jones decided that she had had enough and has now undertaken a regime of herbal supplements that have shown some evidence of working to treat her type of cancer.

Throughout our phone conversation, I struggled to keep my composure. Tears streaming down my face, I was amazed at the energy and enthusiasm that was present in Jones’ voice. She told me that she had missed only a day and a half of school this fall, and said she is lucky to have the help of so many caring friends and family. 

How does she get up and go on each day?

“It’s hard. Sometimes on weekends I sleep in, but then I actually feel worse,” Jones said. “Going to teach allows me to focus on the children instead of on myself.”

After a day of teaching, Jones returns home and takes a five hour nap, gets up and spends time with her children and husband as they all return home from their various activities.  

“My husband (Mike) is a teacher and the girls basketball coach at Trenton High School, and the families at the school have been so supportive,” Jones said. “I’m lucky to have two brothers who live in the area who help with the kids, and my church family and school team have been wonderful.” 

How is the family coping with Jones’ illness and terminal diagnosis? Jones shared that her husband who “never cries” has had quite a few breakdowns lately, worrying about Donna and about how he will be able to take care of their two children without her. 

Caitlin and Cameron have been aware of their mom’s situation all along Jones said, explaining that their therapist said that it would be better if Donna prepared them all along the way.

During this last bout with the chemo treatment Jones said she told her kids, “Mom might not make it this time.” Jones told her daughter, who loves to sing, to keep singing because “Mom needs the hope of cheering you on.” 

“One day, Cameron crawled into my lap and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to go to heaven yet,’ ” Jones shared.

Teaching pal Lorenson is the driving force behind the golf tournament, which is scheduled for this Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Oak Hollow Golf Course in McKinney.

“I just couldn’t sit beside Donna and her family and do nothing to help,” Lorenson said. “They are such great people who love life and God. I was losing sleep thinking about her situation and I figured I might as well do something productive since I wasn’t sleeping anyway. Medical bills and the holiday season are not a good combination, so if we can help relieve some of that pressure, then that’s great! Any bit helps!”

Lorenson told me that she realizes that times are still difficult for many, so she doesn’t have a specific amount of money that needs to be raised for Jones and her family. Any hole sponsors ($100) and any amount that people can donate, even if they are not able to play would be helpful.  “It’s going to be a great day!” Lorenson said. 

For more information about donations, or the Driving for Donna golf tournament, which starts at 12:30 at Oak Hollow Golf Course in McKinney on Sunday, Nov. 11, contact Mary Lorenson.

When I asked Jones what she would like from McKinney as a community, following seconds of silence, she hesitantly said, “Donations (cash) would be helpful. Even with our insurance, we have thousand and thousands of dollars of medical expenses that we can only pay a little each month – it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

“I didn’t think it (life) would be this way,” Jones said quietly.

I’m certain every one of us can empathize with that statement. I, for one, look forward to meeting this amazing woman, who faces death with incredible grace and dignity, in person on Sunday. She and her children will be driving the golf cart during the tournament.

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