Having cancer can be physically and emotionally taxing. For Donna Cornick, 74, of Chapel Hill, her cancer journey was made easier by talking to other patients about her experiences and having a team of doctors who went the extra mile to help her do the things she loved, even after cancer.
Cornick enjoyed a busy life, one full of activity, prior to her cancer diagnosis. She started playing golf in high school, and has spent decades perfecting her game, mostly because she enjoys the outdoors and likes to walk. She even worked at UNC Finley Golf Course, and still plays weekly whenever course restrictions due to the pandemic allow. She’s also a member of a band and plays mandolin and guitar in the bluegrass and Celtic styles.
In 2014, those activities came to halt when a routine mammogram showed a small tumor in her right breast, less than half a centimeter wide. “The radiologist said ‘I think there may be an issue here,’” Cornick said. “I said ‘Please send me to UNC.’”
Designing a treatment plan for an active lifestyle
From the start, Cornick’s experience was positive. She met with Anthony Meyer, MD, PhD, who scheduled a lumpectomy and told her he’d have her home in time for a late lunch.
“He was right,” she said. “I was home early and didn’t have any problems.”
After the surgery, Cornick met with UNC Lineberger’s Lawrence Marks, MD, the Dr. Sidney K. Simon Distinguished Professor of Oncology Research and chair of radiation oncology, to discuss a treatment plan.
“He looked at everything about me,” she said. “He knew I played a lot of golf, so he was very careful during the radiation and doing it a little differently than what they typically do.”
“Ms. Cornick’s case was interesting as her concern about her golf swing challenged me to think more critically about the anatomy of the shoulder and its various joints and how I could better spare these tissues,” Marks said. “I settled on using a somewhat unusual combination of beams, and I am glad that we were able to deliver her radiation without negatively affecting her golf game.”
To help with side effects, Marks wrote her two prescriptions — one for lidocaine and one for a mulligan to help with her golf game.
“It said ‘one mulligan per hole as needed. I handed the [pharmacy] the joke prescription and got my lidocaine,” she said. “I really enjoyed seeing [Marks] and visiting with him. He made me laugh.”
Cornick finished radiation in December, 2014, and Marks’ treatment strategy paid off; she was playing golf again in the spring. Her oncologist, UNC Lineberger’s Claire Dees, MD, was also careful when prescribing Cornick Arimidex, which can cause cramping in the hands. Dees wanted to make sure her patient could still play the guitar and the mandolin, despite the side effects, so she monitored Cornick closely. Fortunately, she never experienced any effects that impacted her playing.
“Everyone at UNC Lineberger was incredibly kind and professional,” she said. “The guys in the parking lot, nurses, physicians, everyone. I felt very well cared for and very fortunate.”
Sharing the cancer journey with others
Cornick said that care even extended to other patients in the waiting room. She would see familiar faces at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger, and they would swap stories.
“We sort of got to know each other, she said. “Some of their stories were more serious than mine, and it hits you emotionally.”
Cornick found talking to other patients helped with her own cancer journey, and she said she’s always willing to share her experiences with others who may need to hear that story.
“I told several people, ‘Try not to have breast cancer, but if you do, have what I have.’ ”
Taking on the bucket list
Cornick is still playing in her band and hitting the links as often as she can. But she’s also making time for some bucket list items she had put off during her cancer journey.
A history buff, Cornick was fascinated with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era and was always interested in seeing the FDR historic site in Hyde Park, NY. She took a leap and wrote them a letter, and ended up spending several weeks in the fall as a tour guide and docent at the FDR Library and Museum.
She has also kept up with old friends, making time to see them and spending two to three weeks every summer in Maine catching up on each others’ lives.
“It makes you more aware of your mortality, and for me, it made me decide to not put off doing things I really wanted to do on my bucket list,” she said. “I decided now is the time and to get on with it. In many ways, I look at life more positively. Now is the time to do it.”