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LaDonna & Jessica’s Story

Daughter Helps Mom Fight Breast Cancer

With no family history or other risk factors, LaDonna VanDenTop never imagined she would one day receive the harrowing news that every woman fears: "You have breast cancer." Furthermore, she didn’t expect to be thrown into a whirlwind of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at a moments notice.

However, on June 7, 2008 she discovered a lump in her left breast. In the following days, she had a mammogram and biopsy, and later received the devastating news that she had stage one breast cancer.

At the time of her diagnosis, LaDonna was a stay-at-home mom of five children. She was a constant force of strength not only to her immediate family, but also to many others. Therefore, it’s no surprise that when she was diagnosed with cancer, LaDonna proved to be resilient, poignant and determined to triumph over the disease. "This is not something you can prepare yourself for. Many tears were shed, and we had a lot to digest and educate ourselves about. I asked God for direction in my care and to help guide me through the journey."

A few days after she discovered the lump, LaDonna told her children about her breast cancer diagnosis. "Words can’t even begin to describe the rush of emotions you feel when you first hear the word, cancer," saysJessica Lems, LaDonna’s eldest daughter. "It was very emotional and stressful at first because so many questions go through your head like, Why her? Why at such a young age? What kind of surgery is she going to need? What doctor should we see?"

LaDonna’s first line of treatment involved selecting a surgery option – lumpectomy verses mastectomy. "I was told that I was a prime candidate for a lumpectomy because of the position of the lump, which was rather high on my chest wall," she says. "My husband and I leaned on this knowledge and having prayed much for the right answer, God led us to believe that the lumpectomy would be the best option for me."

On June 18th, LaDonna underwent a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy. Afterwards, she was instructed to select an oncologist that would help further reduce her risk of relapse as well as guide her towards recovery. After several recommendations by doctors and nurses, she finally chose Dr. Hagin at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center in Sioux City, IA. "Immediately after we left that initial appointment with Dr. Hagin, I knew that I had chosen the right doctor for me." LaDonna had a combination of chemotherapy and radiation that lasted for roughly 18 months. She also opted to sign up to be a part of a clinical study on Herceptin and Lapatinib, which are two of the chemotherapy drugs used for her specific type of breast cancer.

Mother-daughter relationships often take on new meaning when breast cancer is involved, and relationships are typically strengthened as a result of the experience. However, LaDonna and Jessica’s bond became notably stronger on account of Jessica’s medical background, which she currently utilizes as the radiology director of Hegg Memorial Health Center in Rock Valley, IA. Jessica was able to be intimately involved in her mother’s treatment, and also provide her with valuable insight during her recovery. "Once we figured out what kind of breast cancer my mom had, we were told of a clinical trial study that she was a candidate for," she says. "As I am one of very few in my family with a medical background, I took it upon myself to read through the entire study to try to understand it the best I could. In the end, she decided to be a part of the study. A big reason why she chose to be part of the study was to help women in the future." LaDonna adds, "It was so great to have Jessica’s medical knowledge while I was going through this."

The entire VanDenTop family has always been a close-knit clan that has relied heavily upon one another, especially in a time of need. “We were very fortunate to have a great support network of family and friends,” says Jessica. “My mom never had to go to a treatment by herself; there was always someone willing and able to drive her back and forth.”

LaDonna was able to get through treatment with the help, many prayers and needed support from God, as well as her family, children, and husband. “Faith, family and friends is what got me through this journey,” says LaDonna. “They were always there to offer the support I needed, whether it was bringing me to treatment or bringing me a meal, I was always well-taken care of.”

Today, LaDonna is completely cancer-free and feels confident about her future. In her free time, she speaks with women who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and offers them words of encouragement and support. “You should always hope for the future, live each day to the fullest and remember to not sweat the small things,” she says. “I have spoken at a few events about the trials and tribulations of cancer and what to expect. You need to always educate yourself, accept help when it’s offered, and listen to your body.”