On one end of Commack High School’s gymnasium -- far removed from the chunks of hair scattered on the floor, buzzing shears and flashing cameras -- Donna Coane’s bright smile and bouncy, high-pitched laugh greeted volunteers and “shavees” during the St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser last Friday, benefiting the fight against childhood cancer.
Coane checked people in and answered questions while sporting a button that said, “Let’s Conquer Kids’ Cancer.”
Five years ago, she was doing exactly that.
Coane, now 22, was in her junior year at Commack High School when she noticed that the skin around her right eye was starting to bulge. She got a CAT scan, and the next day, while sitting in her ninth-period class, the principal came in and asked her to come to the main office. There, she found her mother crying.
About two weeks later, Coane was officially diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma. According to the St. Baldrick's Foundation website, rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common soft tissue cancer in children. The disease affected much more than just her eye.
“That was going around my eyeball, in my sinus, in the lining of my brain, in my jaw, and down here in my neck,” Coane said. “Basically the whole right side of my face. So, we were all flabbergasted.”
While undergoing in-patient chemotherapy at Stony Brook University Hospital, Coane looked to YouTube as a creative outlet and documented her experiences in a video blog. She also began to draw. Coane was in the pediatrics wing, surrounded by young children, so she penned doodles for them -- Tinker Bell and Mickey Mouse were popular requests -- along with creating tiny stuffed animals for the kids to squeeze while getting MRI exams.
After fighting cancer for a year-and-a-half, Coane returned to Commack for the final part of her senior year. She then attended SUNY New Paltz, studying art education, and currently is a substitute teacher in the Commack district. She often finds herself in the classroom where her life changed forever.
“Now I’m five years in remission,” she said. “And my doctors still can’t believe I got through it, because I was basically on death’s door. If I didn’t get treated right away, I would have passed away, unfortunately.”
Coane said it’s “tear-jerking” to see children getting their heads shaved at St. Baldrick’s who are young enough now to have been friends with the kids she knew in the hospital. Every so often while she’s teaching high schoolers, they’ll ask about what she was like as a Commack student, and Coane will tell them a bit about her journey.
“They realize then, ‘The person next to me could have cancer someday. I should really enjoy the moment and maybe help out before something does happen,’” she said. …“I tell them, ‘Make sure that you do something, especially with community service and helping out. You never know what could happen.’”