This quarter’s spotlight is about Robin D’Onofrio, Human Resources.

Inspired by Jason Deblock, with a special thanks to Erik Williams and Steve Grammer

Written by Robin D’Onofrio

My “Spotlight” story is about my own competitive nature that helped develop my mental and physical strengths that I would need later to battle stage 4 MBC.

The beginning…To say that I have had a diverse life, would be an understatement! I was born in Detroit, MI., in the 1950’s, where women still stayed home, and were not allowed to work in “manly” job positions.

Competition ran thru our family. My dad was a MP and played pro-ball in the army. My brother pitched for Michigan State University, and I played slow pitch baseball (pitcher and 3rd base), but my true passion was in horses.

When I was 8 years old, I got my first horse. Cindy was a plain old Pinto mare, but she was beautiful to me! I was too short to lift the saddle on her, so I learned to ride bareback. Jumping from a large rock in my grandparent’s yard worked most of the time, but sometimes, I would fall off the other side! (Many years later I would teach riding lessons, that began with riding bareback.)  That love I had for horses would carry over for the rest of my life.

Wanting to make sure I did it right, I attended Ohio State & Michigan State University for equine and barn management. I stood 4 stallions, and my daughter and I competed at a circuit and national level. Sometimes I would win, and sometimes I would lose. Sometimes we would travel 30 hours just to have the horse judge look the other way. But I never gave up trying!

Along the way, I started 2, 4-h groups. One for horsemanship, and the other for horse judging. My ultimate goal was to teach proper equine management and care while instilling confidence and skill to the kids. We put on many clinics, county wide, where my vet would come out, induce mares so everyone could see the foals being born, teach proper nutrition, and equine management. If I was going to have    4-h kids, I was going to do it right! During the time I had the 4-h groups, there would be times the child would give up and say they could not do it. They would put their horse in one of our stalls and they would stand and watch the other kids. Finally, they would grab their horse and begin all over; but this time they achieved their goals! Never say you can’t do it!

It was an incredible time in my life!! But it also included a lot of hard work! It helped develop thick skin and a tuff backbone! My day would start at 4:30 in the morning, banging 20 frozen water buckets in sub-zero temperatures and working with the horses before I would begin a 24-shift as a paramedic. When I got home from my shift the next day, there were 20 stalls to clean and many other chores to do. BUT, nothing was going to stand in my way!

The middle….In the 1980’s, I wanted to volunteer at the local volunteer fire dept and become a paramedic. Again, this was during the time when women were banned from such jobs. I did not care; I took firefighting A & B and became a firefighter. They could not stop me from that! Unfortunately, as many times as I tried to get on the fire dept, they would say no. Then they finally said yes and allowed women on the dept! Little did I know this stubbornness would help me many years later. After obtaining my firefighting degree, I became a Basic EMT, EMT Specialist, and then a Paramedic. Doors were just opening for women in EMS. Consequently, I was able to be hired by the company that I would work at, for many years to come.

Again, my stubbornness came thru and I was able to became a member of Sanilac County Dive Team. I was one certificate shy of a “Master Diver” level. There was just something about diving in a cave. During this time, I had the opportunity to dive many ships in Lake Huron, one of them being the SS Regina. She and the Charles S. Price collided in the great storm of 1913. My dive captain found the virgin ship and invited me to dive it with him. Was amazing!!

A new chapter….After finishing all the pre-reqs for the nursing program, and being in healthcare for 20 years, I said enough and changed my path. At the age of 46, I graduated with honors with my Bachelor’s Degree in Business. I was definitely the oldest person in my class! My classes were incredible. It’s amazing how you want to learn once you get older! During that time, I had moved to Chesapeake, VA. Moving to VA, brought me the opportunity to work at PeTA.  PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is one of the most amazing places I have ever worked at. PeTA flew me to another state and I saved a grandson of the famous race horse, Secretariat from out of the killer pen. During that time, I adopted two of their labs, and was involved in many protests, supporting the ban of animal cruelty! Was amazing!!!

Towards the last chapter….Somewhere along the way, I made a turn, and ended up in AR. (The chigger capital of the world! LOL) In 2016, I began working at Action, Inc. Shortly after starting at Action, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. To be exact, it was November 2, 2016. My entire world changed with that diagnosis. (So grateful Mike was by my side!)

Not wanting to re-visit this disease, we were game on for treating it aggressively! So, I had bilateral mastectomies, chemo, and radiation done within 6 months. With just a few blood clots in my legs, I was considered cancer free! Allan Newell used to call me cue ball! Unfortunately, 2 years later, my stage 2 BC came back as stage 4 MBC. Once again, we hit it hard. Some of these procedures included lung biopsies, TACE, and Cryoablation. The lung biopsy did not go as planned. Unfortunately, he missed the target and I ended up with a punctured lung, which ultimately caused a partial collapsed lung. So, between the radiation burns on the bottom of my lung and the hole at the top, my life was pretty miserable. I could not breathe, which meant numerous trips to the ER.  (Needless to say when they needed to biopsy my mediastinal lymph nodes ½” from my aorta, I was a little nervous!) Trans Arterial Chemo Embolization (TACE) is a procedure where they plug chemo beads into one of the arteries that feed the liver. That went without a hitch, but unfortunately it didn’t help. Shortly after that, they did what is called Cryoablation. This is where they puncture a hole in your side, insert a frozen rod, and freeze part of the liver and the surrounding tumors. The pain was incredible! I could not stand upright for days after that. Unfortunately, that did not work either. There were other procedures they tried also, each ending up with the same result. The only thing that changed was my tumor marker going up! This is caused when the tumor, or tumors grow in size or quantity. At that point my tumor marker was 2379. A normal person’s marker would be around 20.

A change in plans! My oncologist at that time refused to try different chemo, or treatments. She basically told me to dig a hole. Remember that stubbornness I told you about earlier?? Having worked as a medic for all those years, you learned which hospitals were the best… not only was University of Michigan one of those incredible hospitals, but they are also ranked within the top 20 in the nation!

One phone call later, and my husband, Mike and I, were off for a trip northward to Michigan! We met with our new oncologist, Dr. VanPazNak. She is a firecracker that only stands about 5’ tall and weighs less than 100 lbs! She has curly grey hair and reminds me of my grandmother. If I were cancer, I would run fast and far! She is not a force to be reckoned with! Meeting with Dr. VanPazNak, we learned that not  only were there treatments for what I had, but also there was a large variety of them! The treatment I speak of, slows down the progression, or pauses it. Currently there is no cure for stage 4 MBC. I was beyond happy and my feet couldn’t touch the ground. In 72 hours, my life went from, dig a hole, to of course we can help you!

What is stage 4 MBC? Stage 1 hits an organ in your body, (skin is an organ, too) but does not include lymph nodes. Stage 2 hits that organ and includes lymph nodes. Stage 3 includes the previous but a 2nd tumor shows up in the same organ. Stage 4 includes hitting the organ, lymph nodes, and a different organ. Stage 4 MBC stands for metastatic breast cancer; meaning it began in my breast and a malignant tumor(s) landed in another organ; my liver.

But we lived in Arkansas??!! I could only be treated by U of M, if we lived in Michigan. So, within 30 days of meeting Dr. VanPazNak, Mike and I bought a small farm, and moved northward, to Michigan, working remote in my current position.

My new treatment!! Within 90 days of starting my new treatment in Michigan, my tumor marker dropped from 2379 to around 60. That was at the end of 2022/early 2023. Unfortunately, my tumors mutated and my markers began to rise. (They will always find a way) The treatment I was on, was no longer an option. It would be easy if someone could just remove my liver..instant fix!! Unfortunately, your liver is one of those organs that you can’t live without. Also, if your liver isn’t functioning well, it causes other organs to have issues. I was put on another chemo. This chemo had more side effects and was glad when I was taken off of it. By the time I was done with this chemo, I could barely walk from the couch to my bed. My belly was getting bigger with ascites (fluid from my liver) and fluids were beginning to back up in my other organs. I had distal edema that went higher than my knees. And I could vomit on command! The tumors stopped responding to this chemo also. At that point, my tumor markers were only around 150. They were still a long way from when I left AR!

During this time, I could barely breathe, coughed all the time, and had nose bleeds that would last for 2 hours at a time. Mike had to build steps so I could get into the pickup and into bed because the edema around my knees stopped me from bending them. I developed more clots in my legs and ended up being hospitalized at U of M for 10 days. During that time, they hung back-to-back diuretics and potassium. I was finally released after losing over 3 gallons of fluid in my body. I’ve only had one procedure since being released from the hospital. When you have liver issues, you can develop esophageal varices. These are vericose veins in your throat. If they burst, you will bleed to death and there is nothing that can be done. Because of the tumors on my liver, they scoped me and found a stage 2 varices. They banded it, which cuts off the blood and goes away. The procedure was a success and I go back for a recheck towards the end of March.

The next (current) chemo they put me on has to be infused intravenously or thru a port. A port it was!! The new power ports are awesome! They can infuse many things that the old ports cannot. The new chemo side effects are not terrible. I’m losing my toe nails and have lost my hair. I can no longer feel my toes and the bottom of my feet. (better than the alternative!) Neuropathy and epithelial cell loss is a chronic issue with chemo and I was expecting it to happen.

And now….Total, I have lost a little over 50 lbs, mostly water and feel great!! We have the diuretics down to a science at home and I have skinny ankles! Currently my tumor marker is 36, which am ecstatic about! My liver is working like it should along with the other organs! I know this will not last forever, but I certainly will take it today!

The future!! I retire from Action at the end of March and am going to be busy! We are already planning our garden, getting the barn and pastures ready for livestock, and have already ordered fruit trees from the local nurseries. Mike and I are also looking at adopting another lab, or two. I truly believe that if you’ve been blessed, you need to pay if forward.

The reason I write this story, is to inspire you to live your dreams. If you don’t wake up excited for the day to start, you need to start a new story! 

Please remember, that no matter what challenges lie before you, never say YOU CAN’T and KNOW NO BOUNDARIES!! 

I wanted to say a special thank you to my husband Michael. He has never left my side, even after 7 years of battling this terrible disease! I love you with all my heart! 

(Right – Amanda my godchild and myself, that I hadn’t seen in 20 years!)
(My newest hair style is much easier to manage!)