Donna Bacon was only 33 when she learned she had Stage III breast cancer.
Seven years later, Bacon, a NYSUT member and professor of health education at Nassau Community College, is cancer-free, newly married and impassioned about her work with college students and as an advocate for women's health. She completed her doctorate in human behavioral studies during her treatment and stayed strong and positive through it all.
After her diagnosis, Bacon decided to have a double mastectomy, even though the cancer was in only one breast.
"I said, ‘Listen, I have a lot of life to live. I can't worry about this for the rest of my life,'" She recalled telling her doctor. "‘I'm still going to be Donna.'"
Bacon attributes her recovery to the strong support she received from her union sisters and brothers in the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers. One of her most lasting lessons: Build a network of support among friends and colleagues.
During surgeries and chemotherapy, Bacon's union colleagues covered her classes, raised money to help her meet medical co-pays and hired a housekeeper to assist her with cleaning and other tasks at home.
Her local also arranged for the delivery of a small gift each time she began a new round of aggressive chemotherapy. That most unexpected gesture proved to be a tremendous boost.
"I wasn't looking forward to the treatment, but I knew there would be a surprise," Bacon said. "They really stepped up. Even to this day, I get emotional talking about it."
Debra DeSanto, president of the Nassau CCFT, said she has come to expect that kind of response from members.
"This is a local where members go the extra step for a colleague in need, just as I've seen them do for students," DeSanto said.
Bacon finished her treatment on May 15, 2007, and graduated from her Ph.D. program at Columbia University the next day. Eighteen months later, feeling and looking wonderful, she stood up at the NYSUT Community College Conference as conference chair and NYSUT Board member Ellen Shuler Mauk invited attendees to recount their "union moment" when they first realized what having a union meant to them.
Participants were spellbound as Bacon recounted her family history with breast cancer (her mother died of the disease at age 36), her treatment and the help she received from her fellow NYSUT members.
Since her recovery, Bacon has channeled her education and her personal experiences into being an advocate for women's health issues, especially for the health of low-income women and women of color.
She founded "Mid-Nassau Lend a Helping Hand," a not-for-profit project that provides free assistance — housekeeping, meals, emergency financial aid, massage therapy, wigs and prosthetics — to women of all income levels as they undergo treatment for breast cancer (www.midnassaulahh.org, 888-420-1030).
She also serves on the board of Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.
Bacon defines her experience with breast cancer as grueling, yet how she chose to deal with it left her feeling empowered. Cancer, she said, "released me.
"I'm not afraid of anything anymore."