EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 16, 2013

'I'm stronger than I thought I was'

Haverhill woman fights cancer for fourth time

By Sara Brown
sbrown@eagletribune.com

---- — When Donna Judge went to her doctor to find out the results of a biopsy in 2006, she told her husband, Rick, not to bother to go with her. Doctors had assured her there was a 90 percent chance she was perfectly healthy because mammograms and ultrasounds had turned up negative.

The doctors were wrong. She was diagnosed with breast cancer that day.

Judge called up her husband “crying hysterically to let him know the bad news.

“He said I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to die,’” Judge said. “I don’t remember that at all. I guess I blocked it out.”

Thus began Judge’s long battle with cancer. After the initial diagnosis, Judge went through eight rounds of chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Four years later, she was diagnosed again with breast cancer. She is now on her fourth diagnosis with the disease.

She has gone through chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, including bone resection and chest wall and lymph node dissection. She is now in a clinical trial at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“It has been an interesting ride, for sure,” Judge said.

Judge, 44, is a teacher’s aide in the Haverhill public schools. She and her husband, 49, have been married since 1995 and have two sons, Dylan, 17, and Connor, 14.

Judge said when she found out the cancer had returned for the second time, it was the worst day of her life.

“It was awful. I didn’t know when I was going to die,” she said.

It took months, but she eventually fought through her depression with the support of her family and friends, she said.

“Everyone has been so encouraging. That has really helped,” Judge said. “My husband has been my rock.”

Losing her hair has become a recurring part of her life.

“The first couple of times, I didn’t even think about it. The first time I went through chemo, I didn’t even buy a wig,” Judge said.

During the clinical trial, doctors assured her that she wouldn’t lose her hair because no patients had lost theirs up until that point.

Judge was counting on that fact.

“I wanted it to keep it low-key and not tell many people. When you tell people you are going through your fourth diagnosis, people look at you like you’re dying,” Judge said.

She would eventually have to tell people. On a flight to Las Vegas for vacation, her hair started to fall out.

“I didn’t even want to comb my hair during that trip, because it was just coming out in clumps. That was the first time I was really upset about losing my hair,” Judge said.

Judge has maintained a positive attitude throughout the years and tries to remain active. Six months before she found out she had cancer, she started karate lessons. She is now training for her third-degree black belt.

“It’s a great outlet and stress reliever,” Judge said. “Sometimes, it’s good just to hit things.”

She earned her second-degree black belt months before her third diagnosis.

“I tested for it with stage-three cancer, and I didn’t even know it,” she said.

Cancer has taught Judge a few things about herself and some life lessons.

“I’m stronger than I thought I was,” Judge said. “I say what I mean and mean what I say. I don’t care if people don’t like me now. If they do, great. If they don’t, I don’t have time for them anymore. Time is precious.”

She is also writing a book about her experiences that she hopes to have published by the end of winter.

The book grew out of Facebook posts.

“Every time I would go into a treatment, I would make a status report and write a letter to chemo. They were whimsical and lighthearted,” she said. “My friend said she saw a book coming from it.”

Judge said she is not much of a reader and never thought of herself as a writer until now.

“I never thought in a million years that I would write a book,” she said. “It has helped me, and it’s been fun. Hopefully, someone will read it and find humor in a situation where it is hard to laugh.”

Judge tells women going through the same predicament to take life minute by minute.

“That’s what I have to tell myself all the time. You have rough moments. You just have to get through the minutes. Soon, minutes add up to an hour, and the hours add up to a new day,” Judge said. “A new day is always a better day.”

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