Donna Laughlin, lead RN for Novant Health Pediatric Endocrinology, always knew she wanted to be someone who sent caring out into the world, but she had no idea that one day her giving spirit would be returned to her in her hardest moments.
A routine mammogram takes a turn.
2022 started out like any other year, but would soon become a defining chapter in her life. As a nurse, she knew the importance of getting regular checkups. This includes mammograms.
“I worked in the emergency room years ago, and I saw so many women with stage 4 breast cancer because they had been scared to get a mammogram,” Laughlin said. “It was so sad. I promised myself I wouldn’t be that woman; I was going to get a mammogram every year.”
With no other history of breast cancer, she expected this one would be like all the others. Shortly after the mammogram, her primary care physician called, wanting her to come back for a biopsy of a lump.
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“As a nurse, you know what that means,” Laughlin said. “I was nervous, but thought it would probably be something benign. Three days later my doctor called and told me it was cancer. It was a total shock.”
Because Laughlin was so proactive with her yearly mammograms, the ductal carcinoma was at stage 0. This meant the cancer had not spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. Laughlin was relieved to hear that news, but knew that she would need surgery to remove the lump, as well as radiation.
But the first thing she did was not worry about her. She called her three daughters, and strongly encouraged them to get regular mammograms.
“Now we have family history,” she said. “I want to make sure they too get regular mammograms, as well as to know why it’s so important to get them done.”
In total, Laughlin had two surgeries and seven weeks of daily radiation. Her last surgery, which was to go back in after the first to make sure all the borders of the lump were clean, was in June 2022. She completed radiation in October.
While Laughlin could focus on the stress of her cancer journey, she instead focuses on the doctors, nurses and staff who helped her during her experience.
“Everyone at the Novant Health Cancer Institute was wonderful,” she said. “Everyone was kind, caring, and tried to add a little humor to my day. I felt cared about and for.”
Laughlin especially appreciated her nurse navigator, Vicki Davidson. Davidson helped her navigate the process and was a shoulder to lean on when Laughlin needed anything. Laughlin also appreciated her radiation staff, as they kept her in high spirits the whole time.
“Vicki was so, so wonderful,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gotten through this without her. Whatever I needed she made sure I got, and she listened to every question and concern I had. And the guys at radiation! They made me laugh by telling me how my treatments were only Monday through Friday, because cancer doesn’t grow on the weekend.”
She said her whole team was there when she rang the bell for her final treatment: the medical family she credits with helping her make it through.
“I couldn’t do it without my team,” she said. “They were so proactive, kind and wonderful.”
From cancer treatment to knee surgery
While Laughlin was dealing with cancer, she had another medical issue: her knee. Laughlin, who has been a nurse for over 39 years, had been dealing with knee pain for years. She saw Dr. Jason Boothe at Novant Health SouthPark Family Physicians for the pain. After numerous injections, she was told she needed knee surgery. But with her cancer treatment looming, she decided to hold off.
“I told the doctor I can only do one thing at a time,” she said. “I had a date in mind after treatment to do it, but for me, it was more important to deal with the cancer first. A knee isn’t life threatening!”
In November 2022 — just a month after her last radiation treatment — she had her knee surgery. Again, Laughlin said her surgeon, nurses and staff were top notch. As is natural, Laughlin compared her two medical procedures, and which was more taxing. While she said the knee surgery and recovery was more painful, the cancer treatment was the hardest mentally.
“In the scheme of things though, I feel like getting through cancer made me stronger,” she said. “After cancer, I can do anything!”
A lifetime of medical service
Laughlin knows how hard medical professionals work for their patients, as a nurse who has worked in multiple areas of medicine. But she didn’t start out thinking she would be a nurse.
She started college as an education major at Clemson University, but quickly realized that was not her calling. So Laughlin transferred to University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and studied nursing. One thing stuck with her throughout her college career: she knew she wanted to work with children. Laughlin has worked at many hospitals and practices in the Charlotte area, and loves working with Novant Health.
“We are a team and a family,” Laughlin said. “I work with great people, and always had opportunities to learn and grow no matter where I was. Nursing is a great career, and I love what I do.”
That love of nursing encouraged one of her daughters to also go into nursing. Her daughter, Nicole Bucci, started as a certified nursing assistant with Novant Health in 2007. Today, she’s a nurse at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. Bucci also went to UNCC for nursing, and wore Laughlin’s nursing pin at graduation.
“It makes me incredibility proud to see one of my daughters follow me into nursing,” she said.