At 9:55 a.m. last May 17, Donny Davidson sat in his usual place at the head of the table, leading a staff meeting at Southern Fluidpower. It was like most other Friday mornings at the company his father started and Davidson now owned.
A few minutes later, he received a phone call from his doctor.
“The first thing he said was ‘I’m sorry,’” Davidson says.
He had stage 4 lung cancer; it was inoperable.
Davidson, who has always been fit and loves nothing more than getting outside and enjoying activities on the lake with his family, had had a persistent cough for awhile, but otherwise felt just as healthy as he always had.
“My doctor asked me if I had an oncologist or knew one because I needed to see one that afternoon. I mean, I knew what one was, but I didn’t know any. Why would I?”
At 1 p.m., Davidson, 49, heard the same diagnosis from an oncologist whom he was meeting for the first time. By 4:30 p.m., he was at Erlanger hospital, getting a biopsy on a lump in his right armpit.
“I left there with the paperwork saying there was nothing that could be done. It was not a good weekend. It was the weekend from hell, actually.”
Davidson says he was numb, but his wife, Cindy, got on the computer and started looking for information, alternative medicines, solutions and doctors. Mostly she was looking for hope.
On Monday, Davidson receivied a second life-changing phone call. The oncologists office called with the results from the biopsy.
“They said, ‘You have Hodgkin’s lymphoma [a cancer of the lymph tissue]. We can treat that.’ My chances went from 0 to 90 like that.”
Davidson then did what many patients do when confronted with a life-threatening disease like cancer — he did whatever his new doctor told him to do.
“If he had told me to run around the hospital a dozen times, I would have,” Davidson says.
Dr. Peter Edelstein, an award-winning educator board certified by both the American College of Surgeons and the American Board of Colon & Rectal Surgeons, in Orlando, says Davidson’s reaction is normal, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In his book, “Own Your Cancer: A Take-Charge Guide for the Recently Diagnosed and Those Who Love Them,” Edelstein offers some advise for people just given such devastating news.
He specifically looks at what happens to people who are otherwise healthy and accustomed to being in charge of their lives, and the fact that they often turn over all control to their doctor.
“These are titans of industry,” Edelstein says. “These are CEOs, business owners. These are people that never make a decision without doing the research first, and who are used to being the one making the final decision, and suddenly they are doing whatever they are told to do.”
“That is me in a nutshell,” Davidson says.
Edelstein is quick to point out that Davidson’s attitude and willingness to trust his doctor 100 percent is understandable and not necessarily a bad thing.
“But not all diseases are the same and not all doctors are the same, nor are all cures the same,” he says.
The two main things anyone should when they receive a fatal prognosis is to take control and fight for your own life.
“Drive the process as you see fit, just as you are responsible for and play an active role in owning your home and other important things in you life,” Edelstein says. “If you do not own your cancer, it will own you.”
During her annual physical on May 3, 2013, Karen Mills’ doctor found a fairly large mass on her stomach. A well-known local comedian, business owner and a former All-American basketball player at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Mills, 55, is used to taking charge of everything.
As an athlete, she is also fairly aware of her own body and, while she knew something was going on, she figured it was menopause and other changes that come with getting older. Instead, it was a large, cancerous lump attached to her ovary.
While she stuck with the doctors she originally met for her exam, she was very active in every discussion and decision.
“When I was diagnosed, I had such a peace,” she says. “I run my own business and I am a control freak, but this taught me how little control I do have. But I felt so great about my doctors and the staff. It was such a great team and that’s really what it is.
“Still, I think you have to be your own best advocate for your health, and my doctor encourages that. You have to get with the right doctor. I’ve heard from others who said they kept being told nothing was wrong. I did a lot of research on my own and briefly considered some alternatives to chemo.”
However, she understands the tendency to go where the doctor leads.
“It felt out of the blue and your first inclination is ‘What do I do?’ So you look to the doctors, but that doesn’t mean you have to take everything they say. You have to listen to your own body.”
Mills underwent 15 rounds of chemo, as well as surgery and is now cancer free and back on the comedy circuit. She has also become an in-demand speaker for cancer groups.
“I’ve been accused of doing this as a career move,” she laughs.
Davidson admits he also fits the profile of the take-charge type Edelstein addresses in his book. After his parents divorced when he was 7, he made the decision to never miss a day of school, which he didn’t. He was married at 19, a father at 20 and has been the boss, along with his now-retired father, at his own business. The company, a distributor and designer of hydraulic and pneumatic equipment, has a staff of 22.
The evening he was diagnosed he was surrounded by his wife and two sons, their wives and his almost 3-year-old granddaughter, Payton.
“There was a lot of crying,” Davidson said.
On that first night, he found himself pushing away Payton, whom he dotes on, believing — just a little bit, he says — that she would need to get used to life without him. He got over that by the next morning.
Davidson was prescribed 12 rounds of heavy chemotherapy over a 24-week period and was outfitted with a port in his chest to administer the drug. He is now cancer free and has been happy with his oncologist from the start. But looking back, he understands what Edelstein proposes. For instance, he did some research and got some referrals when it came time to pick a general practitioner, but he just went with the oncologist his GP recommended when his cancer was diagnosed.
“I did that for a check-up or a bad cold, but not for a life-threatening disease,” he says.
And once he went to the oncologist, he never questioned the new doctor’s orders.
“I always felt like those were the guys that paid attention in school. I was in shock every day until my first round of chemo. It wasn’t until the second one that I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still go in to work and do things.’”
About midway through the chemo process, Cindy, who was driving her husband to work and hanging around the office, decided to remodel the company conference room. On the wall she added the words, “Today Is A Perfect Day For A Perfect Day.”
“It’s just a reminder that I can do this,” Davidson says.
Davidson still deals with the disease every day, both mentally and physically.
“Every day before I get out of bed, I have certain parts of my body I check for lumps. I know more about it and the process now. If it comes back, I would be a lot more inquisitive. When I went in, I knew nothing.”
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...