As she lay on her deathbed in an Arizona hospital, Donna Muckerheide’s sister, Harriett, left one final request of her younger sibling.
“I want you to help other women with this disease,” Harriett said, the remainder of her life slipping away. “I want you to go out and talk to people about what I’ve got.” It was the last time Muckerheide would see Harriett alive.
The year was 1973, and the disease which had gripped 32-year-old Harriett, setting her body against itself and spiraling her toward the end of life, was breast cancer.
“My first thought,” Muckerheide recalled of that fateful day, “was: ‘I can’t do it right now.’ I had three young kids to raise and a full-time job as a nurse’s assistant. I was just too busy.”
Muckerheide conceded, too, that she had more on her mind regarding the request than just a busy life.
“It was a different time,” she explained. “People didn’t talk about breast cancer. It was very taboo.”
Dori Sparks-Unsworth, executive director of Indiana’s Pink Ribbon Connection, accompanied Muckerheide to her interview with the Daily News Wednesday afternoon.
She agreed with Muckerheide’s assessment of the era’s prevailing mores, adding, “It was a time when you didn’t even utter the word ‘breast’ in public, let alone talk about something like breast cancer.”
Sparks-Unsworth coordinates a training course for breast cancer survivors interested in becoming “peer counselors” to women newly diagnosed with the disease. Her course is coming to Decatur County Memorial Hospital (DCMH) at 6 p.m., April 18, in Conference Room D.
The executive director was convinced that, even if Muckerheide had rushed out in 1973 to fulfill Harriett’s dying wish, she wouldn’t have made any headway in helping support and educate other women with breast cancer. “Back then, there was no such thing as peer counseling — or any counseling — for breast cancer patients. It just wasn’t done. There was so much misinformation and misunderstanding. Breast cancer wasn’t seen as the public health crisis that it is seen as today.”
Thus, Muckerheide left her sister after that final meeting, returning to her life and family and her job at DCMH.
She wouldn’t seriously consider her sister’s last request again until the early 1990s.
“I thought about going into hospice,” she explained. “I thought that would be a good start in fulfilling Harriett’s last wish.”
The doctor she worked for at the time — Greensburg’s Dr. Domingo — convinced her she wasn’t equipped to handle the emotional drain of working hospice.
“He was right,” Muckerheide said. “At that point, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with the suffering and all the human loss.”
A day would finally come, though, when Muckerheide WAS ready; it would be many years later, but it would come nonetheless.
Breast cancer wasn’t finished with her.
In 2001, Muckerheide herself was diagnosed with the disease.
“They caught it extremely early,” she said. “The medical term is ‘in situ,’ and it meant I didn’t have to undergo chemo or radiation therapy.”
Instead, Muckerheide went on medication. After two years of intensive therapy, her doctor proclaimed his belief that she was likely cancer free. Still, considering Muckerheide’s family history (her mother also died from the disease, as did one of Harriett’s four daughters), Dr. Hope wasn’t taking any chances.
Muckerheide remained on meds until 2006; she also underwent a complete, bi-lateral mastectomy. Afterward, Dr. Hope formally declared her cancer free, and she’s been so ever since.
Despite surviving the disease without chemo or radiation, though, the experience changed Muckerheide forever. Her battle may not have been as physically grueling as it proves for many patients, but it nonetheless took a deep mental, emotional and spiritual toll.
“I felt so alone during my fight with breast cancer,” she said. “I had no one there for me, no one to hold my hand and hold me up, no one I could talk to about it. It was awful.”
Added Sparks-Unsworth: “There are numerous studies regarding the effects of isolation on recovery rates. Those studies suggest that having someone there for you as a patient makes all the difference in the world. Having that shoulder to lean on eases stress and anxiety, and that’s really key. Stress should be kept to a minimum when you’re battling any serious illness.”
Muckerheide wholeheartedly agreed. In fact, she attributed a mild stroke, suffered in March 2003, to her level of stress and isolation during her battle. Fortunately, she fully recovered from that as well.
“If I would’ve had someone to talk to about what I was going through,” she said, “it would’ve been an immense help.”
The experience left Muckerheide finally ready to work on fulfilling her sister’s dying wish in earnest, and she began working in hospice. She also began participating in annual “Walk for the Cure” events in Cincinnati, Minnesota and Indianapolis.
It still wasn’t quite enough, though, and not long ago, Muckerheide discovered peer-counseling. When Sparks-Unsworth holds her training session April 18, Muckerheide will be at the head of the class.
“If I can do just one thing to help just one person,” she said, “I’ll have succeeded in helping keep Harriett’s last wish alive.”
She hopes to go further, though; she wants to be that one person a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient can call at 3 a.m., when there’s seemingly no one else to whom she can turn.
“I haven’t had breast cancer myself,” Sparks-Unsworth said, “but I know so many people who have. Patients — especially new ones — wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘I need someone to talk to. Who can I call? I can’t call my pastor; I can’t call this person or that person; it would be rude and inappropriate.’ If that patient has a peer counselor, it’s an easy decision.”
Muckerheide wants to be that understanding voice on the other end, the one to assure the other, “You know honey, I’ve been through it, and I know you’re scared. I know exactly how you feel. You’re going to get through this.”
Only then will she be satisfied she’s truly and finally forging a lasting legacy in Harriett’s name — a legacy that reaches beyond time and death and sisterhood, beyond the bounds of breast cancer and the shell Harriett left behind all those decades gone.
“I still miss her terribly,” Muckerheide said, “I’ll never forget Harriett.”
If Donna Muckerheide has her way, a new generation of breast cancer survivors will someday say the same.
The Pink Connection’s Peer Counseling training session will be held at 6 p.m., April 18, at DCMH, in Conference Room D. For more information or to register, call 663-1389 or 317-255-7465.
Dori Sparks-Unsworth offers special thanks to Greensburg’s Honda Motor Manufacturing for sponsoring the training.
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011