October 14, 2016

Breast Cancer Survivor Inspired to Help Others

Oct. 14, 2016 | Lana Dunn’s 21-year military career has given her the skills to face just about any challenge. Little did she know, those skills would be put to the ultimate test three years ago after finding a lump in her breast.

“I was drying off after a shower and accidentally felt it,” she said. Tests revealed a nine-centimeter tumor buried deep near her chest wall. At the time, Dunn, an Arkansas native, was in Virginia for military training. She returned home for a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and 27 rounds of radiation.

For about a year, Dunn remained hopeful the treatment had successfully eliminated the cancer. “I was only 37 years old and had two young children. If I was going to fight for anyone, I was going to fight for them,” she said.

Unfortunately, Dunn’s fight was only beginning. About one year later, tests showed tumors in her lungs and liver. Because her breast cancer was metastatic – meaning it had spread to other parts of her body — Dunn’s doctor recommended she get a second opinion. That’s when she turned to the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

“I was ready to pack my bags and go out of state for treatment. Then a friend recommended UAMS. When I found out they offer the same clinical trials and therapies as larger cancer centers, I knew I had made the right decision,” she said.

Under the care of hematologist/oncologist Laura Hutchins, M.D., Dunn discovered her newly diagnosed tumors were a different subset of breast cancer than before and now required two chemotherapy regimens instead of one.

“Dr. Hutchins suspected we were dealing with different types of cancer even before it was confirmed,” Dunn said. She was placed on two chemotherapy treatments, one in pill form and one intravenous. It wasn’t long before the strain of the aggressive treatments took a toll on Dunn’s heart.

Her new medical oncologist, Angela Pennisi, M.D., Ph.D., decided to put part of Dunn’s treatment on hold, giving her heart time to rest and regain strength. Pennisi assumed the care of Hutchins’ patients when she retired from clinical practice in August. Although Hutchins no longer sees patients, she continues to serve as medical director of the UAMS cancer service line and professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Divisions of Hematology and Medical Oncology.

“Every time I have to stop part of my treatment, I run the risk of the cancer cells attacking somewhere else in my body. But it’s important to give my heart time to heal,” she said, adding that her transition to Pennisi’s care has been smooth and reassuring. Pennisi is an assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Division of Medical Oncology.

While she’s concentrating on her own healing, Dunn also is using her time to fight for others undergoing cancer treatment through her nonprofit organization called The Journey Project.

“Because I’m in the Army, my family is blessed to have made it through this experience without suffering financial hardship,” she said. Other people she met along the way are not so fortunate, with some even quitting their jobs to undergo treatment.

To lighten the load for her fellow patients, Dunn started making and distributing what she calls Journey Bags filled with useful items for people in cancer treatment. The bags are tailor made for the season and include items such as lotion, a daily planner, socks, head scarves, puzzle books, lip balm, cosmetics and a blanket custom embroidered by Dunn.

In the past year, Dunn has handed out more than 100 Journey Bags to UAMS patients and more at other locations in Arkansas. “These may be small items, but to someone undergoing cancer treatment, it means a lot,” she said.

Dunn also tucks notes of encouragement in each bag, both from her and others who support her mission. “I believe that when you bless others, you are blessed in return,” she said, adding that she hopes to start distributing Journey Bags to women in other parts of Arkansas in the future.

“I know how scary and overwhelming this can be. Metastatic breast cancer doesn’t have a cure. I will be in some of form of chemo for the rest of my life. That’s why it’s important to find something to fight for. For me, that’s my family and helping others. That’s what gives me the motivation to keep going,” she said.