Think of Donna Vaughn as a free-spirited jailer.
Vaughn has logged eight-and-a-half years on the staff of the Liberty County Jail, not far from her Long County home. While the job sounds stressful, she describes it in positive terms, like she does most things in her life. She considers herself a caretaker for the jail inmates and believes most of them are there not because they are bad people, but because they have made bad choices. But even someone as positive as Vaughn can be knocked for a loop with a diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer. She got that diagnosis a month to the day before her 50th birthday.
“My doctor gave me the devastating news. It was just mind-numbing for me,” Vaughn said. “Then she sat and explained all my different options to me.”
Vaughn was behind on her annual mammograms when she found a sizable lump in her breast, and subsequent medical follow-ups found a smaller lump in the other breast. She chose to have the lumps removed, not a full double mastectomy, and then embarked on a treatment regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Two years and four months later, she’s nearing the end of a long treatment cycle. A clinical trial of different chemotherapy drugs was included in her treatment plan.
“I prayed on it and I decided to participate,” Vaughn said. “I thought, it can help me and help someone else in need, too.”
Clinical trials are the period of intense scientific scrutiny that new treatments – whether they are new drugs, new methods of administering drugs, or other changes in established treatment regimens – undergo in national studies in order to prove they are safe and effective and worthy of being adopted by the medical profession at large. Depending on their diagnosis and various other factors, patients at the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute (ACI) at Memorial University Medical Center may be eligible to participate in clinical trials.
Vaughn doesn’t complain, but it’s clear the two-years-and-counting treatment was grueling. Not only was her body combating the disease and the side effects of her aggressive treatment, but she had everyday logistical challenges too, like the long commute to the ACI from Long County. This challenge was met with the aid of regional public transportation. Despite the obstacles, she never missed a day of work other than her regularly scheduled treatment dates and never spent a night in a hospital.
These days, Vaughn feels good, despite occasional minor side effects like the chemotherapy-induced cracked, dry skin on her hands. And she says she’d do it all again if she had to.
“I’d do it for my granddaughter’s sake. She’s five, and I want to be here to see what she’s like as a grown woman.”
Vaughn used to be a military wife, and her conversation about her struggle is sprinkled with combat analogies. As she puts it, “I have a little saying, ‘Faith and trust: The will to live, the strength to fight.”